Thursday, February 17, 2005

Gavin Newsom Rises Above the Rest

SF mayor is a rare politician fighting for gay rights

By Steve Charing

To be sure, Gavin Newsom has Hollywood-style great looks. But that doesn’t matter at all. He could look like Quasimoto, and he’d still be a cut above the rest. For Gavin Newsom, the straight 37 year-old Democratic mayor of San Francisco is as courageous as he is eye candy and one of the few politicians willing to risk his career to support the notion that gays and lesbians have the same right to marry as do heterosexuals.

As you recall, last February Mayor Newsom defied conventional wisdom as well as the California Constitution and began authorizing marriage licenses to 4,000 same-sex couples during a four-week period known as the "Winter of Love" before the California Supreme Court ended it and invalidated the licenses. Clearly the repeated scenes of same-sex couples receiving marriage licenses were emotionally and politically gratifying to millions of gays and lesbians throughout the world. History was being made, albeit for a short period.

However, this act of defiance, along with the ruling from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that declared the banning of same-sex marriages was illegal in the state, sparked a major backlash. Political pundits across the board and politicians, such as Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) who characterized the acts of disobedience and the push for same-sex marriage as "too much, too fast, too soon," believed that this played a significant role in the re-election of President George W. Bush.

Many people agree.

Amendments to 11 state constitutions banning same-sex marriages passed easily in November, and the number of such states has climbed to 17. Besides these amendments, the so-called "gay marriage" issue stoked by the President’s desire to amend the U.S. Constitution in the same way brought out millions of Evangelicals who otherwise would not have bothered to vote. A vast majority of their votes went to Bush. Therefore, the controversial steps taken by Mayor Newsom and county clerks and officials in a few other states may have had an impact on the November elections.

But what Mayor Newsom did was something that was unprecedented and remarkable especially in comparison with other politicians. When the U.S. Constitution amendment debates took place in Congress, very few argued against it other than on the grounds that the Constitution was not a suitable vehicle to define marriage. Hardly anywhere to be seen or heard were opponents of the amendment arguing that gays and lesbians deserve equal rights—to be allowed to form unions whereby the same benefits and rights would be conferred upon them as heterosexuals. Instead, to the disappointment of gay activists, they merely debated the wisdom of using the Constitution in this manner. Alas, such is the nature of politics.

Despite the blame heaped on him, Mayor Newsom hasn’t tempered his earnest belief that gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry. "I've never felt more resolved. I've never felt more passion. I've never felt a greater sense of purpose –but beyond anything else, an obligation to finish this job," he said on February 12 to thunderous applause from the same-sex couples and supporters who filled three floors worth of balconies inside San Francisco’s City Hall to hear a speech marking the one-year anniversary of the "Winter of Love." "We will not back up. I have no regrets."

During this speech, Mayor Newsom declared it was time "to hold our elected officials accountable" for supporting gay marriage as a condition for receiving their community's support. "It is no longer acceptable for politicians to come to you every election cycle and ask for money and then say, 'It's too much, too soon,’" the Mayor said in reference to Senator Feinstein’s remark. "Separate is not equal."

Gavin Newsom put his promising career on the line with his courageous, if controversial, stance. Contrast that with New York’s Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had been a supporter of gay marriage but has recently challenged a court decision allowing it. Mayor Newsom chastised fellow Democrats for not taking a bolder stance on gay marriage during a speech at Harvard and criticized Mayor Bloomberg for his seemingly duplicitous positions.

Agree with him or not, this is why Gavin Newsom rises above the rest—why he has emerged as the leader among the proponents of same-sex marriage. He is fearlessly eager to take on all opponents of same-sex marriage as well as those allies who do not speak out on its behalf. He’s even willing to lock horns with the President. "Don't give up the fight. Don't feel discouraged. Don't listen to the president of the United States," he said to those 3,000 gathered at the commemoration ceremony. Then he led the crowd in a chant of "Shame on you, George Bush."

Mark Leno, a California Assemblyman who has introduced legislation to lift the ban on same-sex marriage in the state, summed it up about Newsom, "No one can be certain how this plays out for him. "What is certain is his demonstration of leadership."

That’s something to which we can all agree.