Notebook: God hates gays, but they don't care

The insults of crackpots and far-right groups did not prevent San Francisco's annual mass same-sex wedding from being the party of the year
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The Independent Online
"IT'S ILLEGAL in God's eyes to do what they are doing," said the man with the goatee beard shaking his fist at San Francisco's City Hall.

And with that, a group of his friends emerged from a minivan with the licence plate CRY2GOD, brandishing placards that proclaimed "the wages of sin are DEATH" and sporting sweatshirts with the question "Got Aids yet?" in big white letters.

The focus of this ragtag group's wrath soon made itself evident: same- sex couples, dozens of them, all togged up for the social event of the year, the city of San Francisco's closest legal equivalent to a mass gay wedding.

They came in dinner jackets and lounge suits, in dresses and historical costume, in tight black leather and even in check shirts and denim cut- offs. Soon the virulent anti-gay protest - "just your regular, right-wing, hard-working, anti-Communist Bible believers", in the words of Reuben Israel, the goatee man - was heavily outnumbered and stranded behind the carefully positioned police cordons, and the party was ready to begin.

Beneath City Hall's grand rotunda, 190 couples came to exchange public vows of commitment and lifelong love on Friday afternoon before a beaming Willie Brown, San Francisco's dapper mayor, who looked like he'd never had as much fun in his life.

"Are you all right over there?" he boomed over his microphone as he started the proceedings.

"Just kissing," came the reply.

"Hey, it's a bit early for that," Brown retorted, to guffaws all round.

This was the mayor's, and the city's, fourth annual "domestic partner ceremony", as it is officially known, but it was the largest, the noisiest, and the most contentious yet.

Same-sex marriage is not yet a reality in California, or anywhere else in the United States, but the city of San Francisco offers the next best thing: the same health and retirement benefits for the partners of city employees and city contractors as would be enjoyed by a formal spouse.

This so-called domestic partnership arrangement has provoked the outrage of anti-gay groups and the Catholic Church ever since it was introduced eight years ago. But that outrage has paled in comparison with the response to the mass "wedding" ceremony. There has been hate mail, invective in the local media, even a recent bomb threat against City Hall.

San Francisco nevertheless remains one of the world's great havens of homosexual freedom, and this year's happy couples were determined to ignore the dissent and whoop it up.

"Hi, I'm the mother of the brides," offered an exuberant Buzz Miller, his carnation button-hole tied to his bomber jacket with a bronze leopard brooch. "I'm not getting married myself - I'm married to my dog."

"I got a cat, a TV and a VCR, what do I need a man for?" agreed his friend Jim Munroe.

"This is our 20th anniversary and we thought it was time to renew our vows," said Russ Freeman, the bride they were escorting. "In 1979 it was in our apartment in Los Angeles with a priest friend of ours officiating. Now we are in San Francisco and in public - this is what being an American is all about. And when I passed those Christians out there, well, I thanked them for coming to my wedding. That's what true Christianity means."

Some participants were in the first flush of love, while others came to formalise long relationships threatened by old age or untimely disease. "We both have Aids. I don't think we could have survived the past 10 years without each other, so we've come to reaffirm our commitment," said Larry Cruz, with his partner David Bernard.

Rick Borg lost his partner Mike last year, but came to get married anyway - with a blown-up photo of his lost love poking macabrely out of his chest pocket. "They were a bit squeamish about the idea of me marrying a dead man, but I told them I was raised a Mormon and we do things like this all the time," Borg explained. "Not that I'm a Mormon any more."

To great roars of delight and music provided by the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Freedom Band, the couples pledged "while in this union to be responsible for each other and to be committed to a relationship of loyalty, love and mutual caring".

"I now pronounce you domestic partners!" Mayor Brown declared. And, as he did so, the cross-dressing Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence - a well- known fixture of the San Francisco gay scene now embroiled in a dispute with the Catholics over a proposed Easter Day street party - arrived in nun outfits, white face-paint and outsize fake eyelashes to offer their heartfelt congratulations.

Then there were grand prize raffles, offered by local businesses keen to seize the power of the pink dollar, a class photograph, and a seven- tier cake in all the colours of the rainbow.

Back outside, the goatee man was chanting "Sick! Sick! Sick!", cheered on by the Reverend Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kansas, a notorious anti-gay protester who runs a website called God Hates Fags. The fags clearly didn't think too much of Rev Phelps, because two gay activists, dressed in yet more nun outfits and calling themselves Thelma and Louise, crowned the afternoon by tossing four organic banana tofu pies into his face. That appeared to break the protesters' spirit somewhat, and by the time the party inside broke up, there was nothing left in the way of the exuberant company as they spilled out into the city for a night of revelry and newlywed bliss.