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Kamala Harris describes her incredible fight for marriage equality that changed LGBT+ history in America forever

Nick Duffy August 12, 2020
California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks to media after marrying same-sex couple Kris Perry and Sandy Stier

California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks to media after marrying same-sex couple Kris Perry and Sandy Stier (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

Kamala Harris, the newly-announced Democratic vice presidential candidate, has a proud and distinguished record when it comes to the issue of marriage equality.

Harris became one of the first elected officials anywhere in the US to marry same-sex couples in 2004 while serving as district attorney of San Francisco, and as California attorney general played a pivotal role in the state’s lengthy battle over marriage equality.

In her memoir The Truths We Hold, the politician recalled officiating some of the first same-sex wedding ceremonies on Valentine’s Day 2004, after San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom unilaterally declared that same-sex couples would be permitted to marry in the city.

Harris explained: “I was on my way to the airport to catch a flight to Los Angeles, but I decided to pass by San Francisco City Hall before I left.

“There were throngs of people lined up around the block waiting to get in. They were counting down the minutes before a government would finally recognise their right to marry whomever they loved. The joy and anticipation was palpable. Some of them had been waiting decades.

“I got out of my car and walked up the steps of City Hall where I bumped into a city official. ‘Kamala, come and help us,’ she said, a glowing smile on her face. ‘We need more people to perform the marriages.'”

Hundreds of gay couples line up in front of the County Clerk's office at San Francisco City Hall to register for marriage forms on February 13, 2004
Hundreds of gay couples line up in front of the County Clerk’s office at San Francisco City Hall to register for marriage forms on February 13, 2004 (Deborah Coleman/Getty Images)

She continued: “I was delighted to be a part of it. I was quickly sworn in along with numerous city officials. We stood together performing marriages in the hallway, crowded into every nook and cranny of City Hall.

“There was all this wonderful excitement building as we welcomed the throngs of loving couples one by one, to be married then and there. It was unlike anything I had ever been a part of before, and it was beautiful.”

However, it wasn’t happy for long. Harris continued: “Not long after, the marriages were invalidated. The couples who have been so happy and hopeful received letters telling them that their marriage licences would not be recognised under the law. It was for each and every one of them a devastating setback.”

The battle over same-sex marriage would continue to rage in California over much of the next decade, with equal marriage briefly legalised state-wide in 2008 by a ruling from the California Supreme Court.

While thousands of couples flocked to marry after the ruling, their joy was undone only a few months later, when voters opted by 52 per cent to 48 per cent to pass the notorious Proposition 8, which re-banned same-sex weddings and cruelly voided the existing unions.

Supporters of Proposition 8, which would outlaw same-sex marriage throughout California, rally during a 'Yes on 8 bus tour in Los Angeles, California.
Supporters of Proposition 8 to outlaw same-sex marriage  rally during a ‘Yes on 8 bus tour in Los Angeles, California in 2008. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Kamala Harris put equal marriage at the heart of her campaign for attorney general.

The Human Rights Campaign filed a legal challenge against Prop 8 on behalf of lesbian couple Kris Perry and Sandy Stier —  and Kamala Harris found herself in the spotlight on the issue again in 2010, as she campaigned to become attorney general of California.

In her memoir, Harris recalled: “It quickly became a central issue in the campaign… I made clear that I had no intention of spending a penny of the attorney general’s offices resources defending Prop 8. My opponent took the other view, a sharp distinction between us.”

Winning election as attorney general, Harris followed through on her pledge to block the state’s defence of Prop 8, but a third-party appeal was instead brought privately by a group of equal marriage opponents.

San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris during her campaign to become California Attorney General in 2010
San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris during her campaign to become California Attorney General in 2010 (Mike Kepka/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

The case wound its way through the court system, eventually coming before the US Supreme Court in 2013.

As the justices considered the case, Harris filed a friend-of-the-court brief calling for Prop 8 to be struck down, attending the court hearing to support the LGBT+ campaigners.

She recalled: “As I left the Supreme Court, there were hundreds of people gathered, waving rainbow flags holding signs, waiting anxiously for justice. It made me smile. They were why I had become a lawyer in the first place. It was in the courtroom, I believed, that you could translate that passion into action, and precedent and law.”

The Supreme Court ultimately issued a narrow procedural ruling allowing same-sex marriages to begin once again in California while kicking the issue into the long grass nationally for a few more years.

ACLU Executive Director for Northern California Maya Harris and San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, celebrate a ruling in favour of equal marriage
ACLU Executive Director for Northern California Maya Harris and San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, celebrate a ruling in favour of equal marriage (Maria J. Avila/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

Joe Biden’s VP nominee was, for the second time, one of the first officials to officiate a same-sex wedding.

A few days later in June 2013, an order was issued allowing same-sex weddings to officially recommence in the state, nearly five full years after the imposition of Prop 8.

Harris recalled in her memoir: “My phone rang and it was [Human Rights Campaign president] Chad Griffin. He was with Kris Perry and Sandy Stier. He said: ‘Kamala, we’re coming to San Francisco, Sandy and Kris are going to be the first marriage and we want you to perform the ceremony.’

“‘Of course, I would love to,’ I told Chad. ‘Nothing would make me more proud.’

“Normally, I had to travel by official car, but this time I insisted that we walk. As my team and I made our way to City Hall, I recalled the famous image of Thurgood Marshall striding purposefully with Autherine Lucy, who had been denied admission to the University of Alabama, one of the first tests of integration.

“Though we were the only ones in the street this time, I felt like we were leading part of a parade, one that stretched through generations. We were following in the footsteps of giants and widening the trail for our time.

“When we reached City Hall, we made our way to the clerk’s office, where a crowd was already gathering in the hallway. Kris and Sandy arrived soon after beaming and ready to go. ‘Congratulations,’ I exclaimed as I hugged them both. They had been through so much for so long.”

Same-sex couple Sandy Stier and Kris Perry are married at San Francisco City Hall by California Attorney General Kamala Harris on June 28, 2013
Same-sex couple Sandy Stier and Kris Perry are married at San Francisco City Hall by California Attorney General Kamala Harris on June 28, 2013 (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

With wedding bells about to ring once again in California, there was one final battle for Harris on the issue — with some of the state’s own over-cautious officials.

She added: “We were preparing for the ceremony when somebody pulled me aside to say that the clerk in Los Angeles was refusing to issue marriage licences until he heard from the state. He clearly needed direction.

“It was as simple as passing me the phone. ‘This is Kamala Harris” I said, ‘you must start the marriages immediately.’

“‘All right,’ he responded, sounding relieved. ‘I will take that as our notice and we will issue the licence now.’ I thanked him. ‘And enjoy it,’ I added, ‘it’s going to be fun.'”

She continued: “There were hundreds of weddings that day, all across the state, each one of them and expression of love and justice and hope. San Francisco City Hall was lit in the colours of the rainbow, a beautiful tribute to the beautiful words, I do.”

Like Harris, presidential candidate Joe Biden also has a lengthy record on the issue.

More: equal marriage, kamala harris, LGBT

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