Gay Marriage and the Power of Cities to Change the Country

What was once popular opinion – and public policy – in San Francisco could soon be the national norm.

Image
Reuters

The story of the growing acceptance of marriage equality in the United States is a long one, but the more specific story of one of the seminal legal cases on the issue before the Supreme Court today has its roots in San Francisco on February 12, 2004.

That’s when the city’s then-mayor, Gavin Newsom, made the startling decision – without a legal ruling on his side, or even a local vote pushing the change – that San Francisco would begin granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Only a year earlier, the Supreme Court had struck down sodomy laws as unconstitutional. But the gulf between that federal stance (gays can’t be jailed for having sex) and San Francisco’s (gays can marry) was massive.

In a legal sense, the movement to sanction same-sex marriage started brewing in America's big cities. San Francisco went on to issues licenses to 4,000 couples (the L.A. Times has a nice history here). And in a more intangible way, the wire photos of Newsom performing many of these marriages en masse created a symbol – both decried and celebrated at the time – that rapidly projected the city’s decision into the national consciousness.

San Francisco promptly went on to sue the state of California over its ban on same-sex marriage, the first time a government had ever challenged such a law (echoes of that strategy, as The New York Times has pointed out, could be seen nearly a decade later in the Obama Administration’s decision last year to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act). In 2008, the California Supreme Court ultimately ruled that California’s marriage laws violated the state constitution. Voters famously responded by amending the constitution that November – with 52 percent voting in favor of “Prop 8” to ban gay marriage – setting up one of the two cases before the Supreme Court today.

As the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office boasts on its website, lawyers for the city hold “the unique distinction of being the only legal team involved as a party in [every] aspect of the legal fight in California – in every case, in every court, before every judge – since early 2004.” You can read the brief the city filed before the Supreme Court here.

In parallel with this history, same-sex couples have found public opinion and legal support on their side in other cities across the country like Boston, Des Moines, and New York.

"Same-sex couples, and gay and lesbian people have gravitated to cities because there’s sort of safety in numbers, especially when it was much more frightening and dangerous to be out in a smaller community or a rural place," says Marc Solomon, the national campaign director for the advocacy coalition Freedom to Marry. "Gay and lesbian people developed political power in cities, and they also showed everybody who lives in these cities that they’re going about their lives like everyone else."

Cities are by definition heterogeneous places where there’s space for people to live varying lifestyles, so it makes sense that ideas at the forefront of civil rights movements would gain their earliest momentum there. But what is most remarkable about today’s Supreme Court milestone is that while some the legal argument for sanctioning same-sex marriage expanded out from cities, American values on the question seem to have done the same at a remarkably rapid pace.

Back in 2008, when voters in liberal-leaning California banned same-sex marriage, the city of San Francisco overwhelmingly voted 75.2 percent against the measure. The gap in public opinion in California alone between the city that championed gay marriage and the rest of the state was still wide just four years ago.

Now, as the Supreme Court takes up the question, every major national poll suggests that more Americans support gay marriage than oppose it. What was a common attitude in San Francisco, Boston, and New York five years ago is now the predominant national opinion. These results come from a Pew Research Center poll conducted earlier this month:

Part of the shift has been driven by younger Americans who now age into adulthood overwhelmingly in support of gay marriage. But 14 percent of Americans (and 28 percent of gay marriage supporters) have also simply changed their minds.

According to Pew, this marks the largest shift in public opinion on any policy issue in the last decade. And that movement recasts the common critique that people who live in cities have fundamentally different values than the rest of the country. Gay marriage suggests a different story: Cities aren’t anomalous; they’re leading indicators.

Earlier this year, Freedom to Marry launched a spinoff initiative called Mayors for the Freedom to Marry. New York’s Michael Bloomberg, Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel and Los Angeles' Antonio Villaraigosa are among the dozens of members. So, too, are the mayors of many cities in states that have seemed much less likely to legalize gay marriage.

"The mayors of Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Galveston are all with us," Solomon says. Then he rattles off some more: Kansas City, St. Louis, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati. "It starts building momentum to show that even though there's not the freedom to marry in Texas or Missouri or Ohio, there are still elected officials who are the heads of the largest communities in those states who believe in it."

And that starts to make marriage equality seem inevitable, regardless of what happens in the Supreme Court this spring.

Top image of demonstrators in front of the Supreme Court today: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.