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East Bay couples celebrate nuptials

by Zak Szymanski
Monday Jun 23, 2008

Civil marriage is a civil right - that was the message from many activists and elected officials on Monday, June 16, as county officials began issuing licenses for the first legally-recognized same-sex marriages in the state.

In Alameda County - home to a thriving community of LGBT people of color - the message also included a celebration of racial and ethnic diversity and an affirmation from spiritual leaders.

The historic day in the East Bay kicked off with an afternoon press conference hosted by Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, joined by representatives from communities of faith who came to give their blessing to the unions. It culminated in 18 public ceremonies, held in a packed City Council Chambers later that evening.

"We are here to celebrate a love that is daring, difficult, and dangerous," said the Reverend Lynice Pinkard of Oakland's First Congregational Church, who spoke first at the afternoon press conference. "Love is not a feeling, it is a discipline."

Pinkard added that government efforts to discriminate against LGBT people "have only fortified our repentant resolve. There is something in our spiritual DNA that longs for justice and makes us willing to bear the cost for it."

The Reverend Phil Lawson of San Francisco's Jones Memorial United Methodist Church said same-sex couples could now "have something my wife and I have enjoyed for 34 years - a public celebration of love."

He added that with barriers to same-sex marriage gone, "we will be able to negotiate what it means to live in community."

The Reverend Dr. Mark Wilson also spoke, recalling a time 30 years ago when Dellums, then a congressman and civil rights leader, visited his college classroom to talk about apartheid.

"When I think about that day, I think about how you were setting free our consciousness," Wilson said, addressing Dellums in particular. The fact that Dellums would now preside over some of the first same-sex marriages in California, said Wilson, would have a positive impact on "some LGBT, queer, or intersex child growing up ... being told they are hated."

Several speakers at the press conference applauded Dellums's courage in his decision to openly celebrate the marriages. But Dellums, who was deputized last Friday in order to be able to preside over the ceremonies, rejected such praise.

"Forty years ago ... it took courage. It took no courage today," said Dellums. "The law is with us."

Dellums then refused to answer questions from reporters about the possibility of losing same-sex marriage to a ballot initiative in November.

"Today is about celebration," he said.

They do
Several hours later, Oakland's council chambers began to fill up shortly after 5 p.m. Wedding guests left bouquets on their friends' reserved chairs to celebrate the ceremonies, which were scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.

The weddings got off to a late start: the county clerk's office had to download the new state license forms, according to Miguel Bustos, director of intergovernmental affairs for Dellums, and then each couple had to be processed and get to City Hall, several blocks away.

But once the couples entered the chambers around 6:45 p.m., the roar of the crowd - estimated to be over 300 people - bounced off the walls and resonated for several minutes.

Oakland's first same-sex married couples, said Bustos, were recruited for the public event largely by word of mouth. They all had already intended to get married in California anyway (rather than just being swept up in the historic moment). They also were chosen specifically with the intent to represent Oakland's extraordinary diversity.

And represent it they did - Latinos, African Americans, Palestinians, and Jews shared the day with mixed-race couples, some older, some younger, some with children, some without.

Traditional customs were practiced, noted Bustos: an African American lesbian couple jumped over a broom on their way to the center of the room; a gay Jewish couple (Bay Area Reporter arts writer Jason Victor Serinus and his partner David James Bellecci) stepped on a plastic water bottle and were serenaded in Hebrew by members of the audience; a Native American lesbian carried sage.

Couples were called up separately by name. Each ceremony took about 5-10 minutes, including mostly traditional vows and ending with Dellums and Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), who served as a witness, signing the forms. There were funny moments, like excitedly rushed "I do's" and extra-long kisses receiving hollers from the crowd. There were also many tears of joy.

The first couple to be married was Karen Boyd and Samee Roberts. The City Hall employees met in 1998, got together in 1999, registered as domestic partners in 2003, married in San Francisco in 2004, and are mothers to a 20-month-old son named Quinn.

The sixth couple to be married - Huda Judallah and Deanna Karraa - are Palestinian-Americans who have been together for over 17 years. They registered as domestic partners with the city of San Francisco in 1995 and with the state of California in 2001, and are mothers to three children. Karraa is a public health nurse with Alameda County, and Jadallah is a doctoral candidate in sociology who works on issues related to queer Arab American families.

Couple number eight was none other than Bay Area Reporter news editor Cynthia Laird and her partner Victoria Kolakowski, an administrative law judge with the California Public Utilities Commission. The pair met in 1994 and quickly fell in love, marrying in San Francisco in 2004 and later registering as domestic partners with the state.

The 11th couple - Jason Fernando Cornejo and Mauricio Edgar Calderon - have been together since 1997, and punctuated their ceremony on Monday night with tears.

"It is our pride and pleasure to be a part of this historic civil rights movement and [we] look forward to the time when racism and discrimination against same-sex marriage will all be but a fleeting memory," the couple wrote in the program notes.

Longtime LGBT community leader Karen Anderson married her partner Gwen Booze. Marriage Equality USA members Mauricio ("Moe") Perez and Ryan James also tied the knot.

Moments in time
While the press conference and weddings themselves were historic, some of the smaller moments leading up to the big event were perhaps the most telling.

Shortly after 9 a.m. on Monday at a downtown Oakland drug store, for instance, a cashier and a customer, both African American, discussed the pending nuptials.

"I don't care about anybody's sexual preference," the customer said.

"Look at Queen Latifah," the cashier agreed.

At lunchtime, a group of colleagues sustained a friendly banter as they shared their views.

"I don't mind it until you bring kids into it," one woman said to the crowd.

"Now wait a minute," her friend pointed out, "you think all of the straight people we know and work with make the best parents?"

Even the rare premeditated protests weren't all that large or lively. At the afternoon news conference, a minister stood in the courtyard and began to speak loudly about Jesus, condemning the gay nuptials. He was quickly interrupted and derailed.

"It's not about Jesus, it's about love," activist Roosevelt Mosby chanted repeatedly. "And I know Jesus."

The minister attempted to make his case, to which Mosby said, "You're not going to do that today."

"All right, brother," the minister said, then extended his hand before he walked away. "God bless you."

"God bless you," Mosby responded, and shook the minister's hand.

Another sign of the times: later that evening, as hundreds of people sat in council chambers waiting for couples to arrive, text messages alerted wedding guests to the delays.

"She says they're in a room waiting for their numbers to be called," an Oakland city worker said as she looked at her cell phone around 5:45 p.m.

Meanwhile, at the county clerk's office, Bustos was helping to organize the couples as they waited for their paperwork to be processed.

At that point, said Bustos, one of the couples turned to him and said, "We've waited 30 years for this ... we can wait another 30 minutes."

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