Carnival As Organizing


decade ago the idea of seriously organizing for gay marriage—or,
more correctly stated, same-sex marriage—was barely imaginable.
The idea of actually getting any place with it was unthinkable.
Yet, in the past two years, we have seen enormous strides made in
fighting for the right for gay and lesbian couples to become legally
wed. First the Supreme Court of Vermont decided it was discriminatory
for the state to offer the financial and economic benefits of marriage
only to heterosexuals. But rather then grant an official “marriage”
status to homosexuals, the Vermont legislature invented “civil
unions”—which was marriage, without the word. Last November,
the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court made the same decision
and a few months later—after queried by the legislature—nixed
the idea of civil unions, calling them “separate but equal.”
The Massachusetts legislature— with many members determined
not to give up heterosexual control of the word “marriage”—is
now in a battle over proposed constitutional amendments that would
legally define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. While
the gay community is divided over the issue—many queers with
a gay liberationist and feminist background are more interested
in finding and promoting alternatives to traditional marriage—almost
everyone agrees that issues of equality under the law are also important.

of the problems for the not-so-wild-about-marriage crowd was that
organizing around the issue was often blatantly conservative. Not
only was it legalistic— “we don’t want to change
that law, we just want to be included”—but the organizing
tactics were basically appeals to the judiciary and legislatures.
There were no alternative visions offered. 

was until San Francisco got into the picture and Mayor Gavin Newsom
decided to engage in civically-endorsed civil disobedience and began,
on February 13, to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Leave it to San Francisco to shed new light on how to organize. 

all reports, the same-sex marriage frenzy in San Francisco turned
into a let’s-get-married Mardi Gras. The San Francisco Gay
Men’s Chorus serenaded long lines of same-sex couples outside
City Hall. Hotels offered special honeymoon rates for wedding parties.
Local flower shops covered the steps of City Hall with rose petals.
Students from the University of California at San Francisco baked
a giant wedding cake for the couples. Professional musicians volunteered
their services to couples who wanted music. Isn’t this unleashed
joy of communal celebration what marriage is supposed to be about? 

to the

San Francisco Chronicle

, the city has already issued
more than 3,200 marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. Most
are from the Bay Area, but others have traveled from more than 20
other states. Some have come from as far away as Venezuela, Switzerland,
and Thailand. But then, San Francisco has long been known for its
“party” politics. 

the mid-19th century, San Francisco was called, in the parlance
of the day, a “wide-open town”—the kind of place
where practically anything goes. The city was rife with gambling
palaces, opium dens, all-male dance halls (not so much homosexual
as homo- social because of the predominantly male population), and
male and female brothels. Dubbed the “Barbary Coast,”
it was also a haven for all kinds of immigrants, from gold-seeking
Latin American miners to fugitive southern slaves. 

the 1930s, San Francisco had a thriving bohemian arts community.
After World War II, thousands of lesbian and gay veterans, many
of whom had come out during the war, moved to San Francisco and
founded one of the largest, most open queer communities in the U.S. 

the 1950s, the city gave rise to the newly emerging Beat culture
and, in the 1960s, hippies and flower children made it the nation’s
countercultural capital. By the late 1960s, San Francisco had become
a last stop for queers around the world. 

history had a profound effect, not just on gay culture, but on gay
political organizing. From the 1960s onward, San Francisco’s
queer communities were far more flamboyant—and daring—in
their quest for basic civil rights than their East Coast counterparts.
The Mattachine Society’s eastern leaders, for instance, required
members to dress up (suits and ties for men; dresses and heels for
women) for a 1965 protest in front of the White House. Compare that
with José Sarria’s 1961 election bid for the San Francisco
Board of Supervisors. A performer at the notorious Black Cat Bar
who often campaigned in drag, Sarria’s slogan was “Gay
Is Good.” He won only 5,613 votes (at-large seats required
from 70,000 to 100,000 votes), but Sarria helped create the idea
of a publicly gay political presence. In 1962, a loose association
of San Francisco’s gay bar and club owners formed the Tavern
Guild of San Francisco (TGSF) to fight off police raids, in part
by providing economic help for smaller gay-owned businesses. (On
the East Coast, meanwhile, gay club owners spent the 1950s and 1960s
paying protection money to corrupt vice squads.) The TGSF raised
money by organizing risqué events like the Halloween Drag Ball
and the Beaux Arts Ball. The group made progress by keeping one
eye on the basic civil rights struggle and the other on throwing
a fabulous party. 

the contrast between East and West Coast gay activism played out
most clearly in the politics of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF).
In San Francisco, the movement was sparked with the 1970 publication
of Carl Wittman’s


from Amerika: A Gay Manifesto

While Wittman had a long history as a leftist political activist,
his work in San Francisco was rooted in the counterculture and it
was from this he drew most strongly. Much of Wittman’s manifesto
concerned sexual liberation and personal freedom, which in turn
served to reinforce those aspects of the West Coast’s gay movement.

New York, the GLF was formed after the Stonewall Riots in June 1969
and drew its inspiration from organized progressive institutions
such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the War Resisters
League. East Coast gay activists tried to change the world by quoting
Marx and Mao, San Francisco activists did it by transforming the
everyday culture of the city. 

the 1970s, San Francisco, more than any other U.S. city, offered
an ongoing spectacle of queerness. Although concentrated in the
Castro and Tenderloin districts, lesbians, gay men, and transgender
people were visible everywhere. As a result, Gay Pride marches were
larger and more extravagant than elsewhere, as were serious political


everyone was happy with Newsom’s decision. California Senators
Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer both voiced disapproval of what
they saw as an illegitimate method of testing the validity of state
law. Massachusetts Congressperson Barney Frank told the Associated
Press he feared “San Francisco being in sort of a free-for-all
will be used against us politically.” Arline Isaacson, who
has lobbied tirelessly on Beacon Hill for gay rights, expressed
fear of a backlash when she told the


: “What happened in San Francisco has not helped us
at all. And it arguably made things worse here.”  

is what you would expect to hear from senators, representatives,
and lobbyists. This is what they have to say (and may even believe).
But such fears don’t invalidate what’s happening in San
Francisco. Within days of Newsom’s mayoral order, Chicago mayor
Richard M. Daley said he agreed with Newsom’s decision and
would, if he had the authority, issue marriage licenses to lesbian
and gay couples as well. On February 20, Victoria Dunlap, the clerk
of Sandoval County, New Mexico, began issuing marriage licenses
to same-sex couples after the county attorney said state law defines
marriage as an agreement between contracting parties, but does not
mention sex. Licenses were granted to 26 couples before New Mexico
Attorney General Patricia Madrid issued an opinion saying the licenses
were “invalid under state law.” The Netherlands and Belgium
both allow same-sex marriage and, on February 19, Cambodia’s
81-year- old King Norodom Sihanouk announced—after seeing news
of gay marriages in San Francisco—that he would support same-sex
marriage in his country because he had “respect” for homosexuals
and “God loves a wide variety of tastes.” 

has been made in the legal fight for same-sex marriage—in Massachusetts,
the Supreme Judicial Court declared it to be a constitutional right,
as did the Supreme Courts of Hawaii and Vermont (although the implementation
of those decisions was circumvented by a constitutional amendment
forbidding it in the former case and a civil-union bill that replaced
it in the latter).  

city of San Francisco has sued the state of California, arguing
that the law prohibiting gay and lesbian couples from marrying violates
the state constitution. If the Golden State’s highest court
finds that these weddings have violated the state constitution,
it will have to order 3,000-plus couples to divorce. (Massachusetts
will face the same prospect if the legislature and public eventually
pass a constitutional amendment banning same- sex marriages—which
cannot happen until November 2006 at the earliest, long after the
first of these weddings takes place this May.) Newsom’s challenge
of the implicit discrimination in California’s state laws has
created a cultural context in which the world can see the alternative
to what exists now. The gambit not only generated great press, it
also showed that the world doesn’t fall apart because there
is same-sex marriage, that it actually looks like a better, more
fun place in which to live. (Most of the reporting about the anti
same-sex marriage protesters has cast them as disgruntled, wet-blanket
party poopers. ) 

is often described as “the art of the possible” and San
Francisco has shown the world that gay marriage is possible.

Michael Bronski’s
most recent book is

Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden
Age of Gay Male Pulps

(St. Martin’s Press, 2003).