Today Marks a Milestone in Gay Marriage

The first couple will marry as California's new law takes effect at 5:01 p.m.

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SAN FRANCISCO—It is either the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end, depending on your point of view. After weeks of preparation—and for many couples, years of waiting—at 5:01 p.m. today, at the close of business, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom will preside over the wedding ceremony of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, a lesbian couple who have been partners more than 50 years. When they exchange vows, Martin, 87, and Lyon, 83, who have been together since they moved into a Castro Street apartment on Valentine's Day in 1953, will become the first same-sex couple to be legally married in the state.

For many, including Newsom, the two women have become the public face of same-sex marriage in California. "What we want, the narrative coming out of it, is about them and what they represent—their story, their history. This is really where it all started," Newsom said. Martin and Lyon were among the first to line up at City Hall four years ago when Newsom, in one of his first acts as mayor, began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. After the two women exchanged rings, the image of their warm embrace softened many hearts. A few months later, California's Supreme Court invalidated the couple's license, along with almost 4,000 others, citing a state law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. In May, the same court ruled that law unconstitutional.

Martin and Lyon are the only couple that will be married in San Francisco today, but tomorrow, county clerks across the state will begin issuing marriage licenses to any and all gay and straight couples who request them. More than 600 same-sex couples in San Francisco alone have made appointments to obtain them. "Hundreds of thousands of couples will be getting married this time, and that's the important thing," Lyon told reporters. "It's something that has been due for a long time, and thank God, it's here."

Since the Supreme Court decision last month, there has been widespread disagreement across the state about whether its 4-3 ruling was a fair-minded interpretation of the state's constitution or a case of unbridled judicial activism. Ronald George, a Republican appointeee who serves as the court's chief justice, told the San Diego Union-Tribune last week that his majority opinion was grounded firmly in the law. "When the court is faced with the responsibility of having to declare a measure unconstitutional, it's not thwarting the will of the people," George said. "It's really adhering to the ultimate expression of the people's will, namely the constitution that the people have adopted."

Even so, many Californians are still uncomfortable with the idea of same-sex marriage. A UCLA study published last week has predicted that gay and lesbian weddings will be an economic boon for the state, bringing nearly $700 million to the economy in the next three years. And a poll released last month found that a majority of voters here—for the first time since polling on the subject began in the 1970s—approve of gay and lesbian couples marrying. Still, 54 percent of registered voters in another poll say they would support a ballot initiative to amend the state Constitution and once again define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Two county clerks in the state's conservative Central Valley, meanwhile, have decided to stop officiating any marriages in their counties. In a statement posted on the Kern County website, Ann Barrett, the clerk in the rural county north of Los Angeles, has said she will continue to issue marriage licenses in accordance with state law, but starting today will not solemnize marriages for straight or gay couples. "We will not have the staff or space to deal with an increase in both licenses and ceremonies," says a statement on the county clerk's website.

A few days after the announcement, officials in Butte County, north of Sacramento, made a similar announcement and provided a similar explanation. It is not clear how many gay couples there are in the two rural counties, or whether their numbers would put undo pressure on the clerks' offices. Most gay marriage supporters believe the clerks are simply opposed to officiating same-sex marriages. Last week, the Bakersfield Californian published several emails between Barrett's office and the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian conservative legal organization, in which a staff member asked for legal support, "as we fully expect to be sued and our own counsel is not being of help."