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February 10, 2014
Viewpoints: Gavin Newsom was right about gay marriage and opponents were dead wrong

20130115_PK_NEWSOM_0092.JPG(Feb. 10 - By Bruce Maiman, Special to The Bee)

If one certainty arises from the 10 years since then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom defied state law and abruptly began marrying same-sex couples, it is that gay marriage opponents were wrong.

Traditional marriage has not been destroyed. No one is marrying farm animals. Society has not collapsed into Roman Empire-like debauchery. No one's spasmodic fears have come to pass.

Wednesday marks 10 years since Newsom became an instant hero to many while inadvertently providing an infamous sound bite, declaring that gay marriage was coming "whether you like it or not."

The boast galvanized opponents and became an effective fear-mongering tic for Proposition 8, California's 2008 anti-gay marriage initiative. Many blamed Newsom for Proposition 8's passage, and, at one point, Newsom even expressed regret for his utterance.

But Newsom turned out to be right. Though it took some time before the door he said was wide open finally opened wide enough, 2013 turned out to be a banner year for gay marriage.

Starting with the November 2012 election, gay marriage became legal in 12 states. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key section of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and essentially upheld the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision overturning California's gay-marriage ban.

Last month, federal judges struck down same-sex marriage bans in Utah and Oklahoma. On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced an order granting same-sex couples the same legal rights as heterosexual couples in a wide range of federal programs.

Today, the number of people living in the 17 states and the District of Columbia where same-sex marriage is legal numbers 120 million - nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population.

Newsom and I sat down in late January to talk about the decennium of his mayoralty's so-called "Winter of Love." Does he still regret saying what he said? No. Instead, he credits the Proposition 8 forces for a "brilliantly edited campaign ad."

Newsom emphasizes the word "edited" because, as any careful observer knows, the artless nature of political advertising can't afford to provide context. Newsom's narrative that day in 2004 was about the arc of history, he explains, "how interracial marriage bans were struck down, first in California in 1948, when 90 percent of the public opposed it, and the Supreme Court in 1967, in Loving v. Virginia, when 70 percent of Americans opposed such marriages."

"The court stepped up and did the right thing whether you like it or not," he said.

Can't fit all that into a campaign ad, especially when you're trying to mislead voters. "Could I have done things differently? Yes. Have I learned from it? Yes. But it was an emotional moment," Newsom said. "All these couples there, crying, I didn't have the capacity to think past that moment at that time. Honestly, I never thought I'd see it happen in my lifetime."

He celebrated the anniversary last week with a coalition of human rights groups to create a Pinterest board for the couples who married that day, and for their families and friends, to document the lives that changed. The board already has hundreds of followers.

Still, my sense is that this 10-year benchmark will pass with less fanfare than most, largely because the vast majority of us don't care, knowing now, as many knew then, that same-sex marriage is nothing to fear. Fear, of course, is a common vessel for ignorance and a useful currency for political greed, but those frightened opponents are dying. What's prevailing instead is reality and the law.

Just 10 days after Newsom's triumphant prediction, then-President George W. Bush endorsed a constitutional amendment to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples.

"It was clear to him there was nothing in the Constitution to deny same-sex marriage," Newsom said. "He was right in that if you want to deny it, you'll need to change the Constitution. For me, that's the ultimate affirmation of same-sex marriage."

Many people consider what happened in San Francisco 10 years ago a landmark in gay and lesbian rights. Will history judge Newsom in that same context?

"I don't know about that," he said, "but the fact I survived that, survived my father who I still argue with on this topic, survived the Catholic Church - it freed me to take public stands on other controversial issues, so I've been blessed by that decision."

Ten years ago, Newsom was viewed as the liberal who rubbed the nation's nose in gay marriage. No longer. History is doing that now. Maybe the blessing for the rest of us is that we can finally move on to things that matter, rather than worry about the private matters of others.

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at