How My Same-Sex Wedding Made Me An Activist

David Jefferson and Jeff Bechtloff on their wedding day, October 2008. Attasalina Photography

Proposition 8 has changed my life. Just one month ago, when it looked like the gay marriage ban was winning support here in my home state, I turned to my partner of seven years and told him we'd better say "I do" before California voters told us "you can't." Immediately, Jeff Bechtloff and I jumped into full "Bridezilla" mode. We ordered a three-tiered mocha-chip wedding cake from the best bakery in Los Angeles (which now carries same-sex cake toppers). We pulled together a soundtrack of Frank Sinatra songs to play in lieu of "Here Comes the Bride." We asked NEWSWEEK's film critic David Ansen and his friend Mary Corey to do a reading from our favorite romantic film, "Breakfast at Tiffany's." We went flower shopping with my high-school girlfriend, who made the table arrangements and corsages for us.

Finally, on Oct. 25, Jeff's mother walked him down the aisle, followed by my 86-year-old father and 93-year-old mother, who accompanied me as I bit my lip and fought back unexpected tears. Standing before the judge, I looked out at the audience of 100 familiar faces and saw my tears of joy returned in kind. With such an outpouring of support—and Barack Obama's promises of hope and inclusion gaining traction—I couldn't imagine that voters here on the liberal Left Coast would deem our wedding a threat to "traditional" marriage. But we were living in a bubble. We'd wrongly assumed that because most Americans no longer feel entitled to call us "faggot" to our faces, we had won acceptance.

Today, Jeff and I and 18,000 couples like us wait anxiously to see whether our marriages will remain valid. California Attorney General Jerry Brown says yes, but there's a good chance that will be challenged in court by proponents of Proposition 8, which changes the state constitution to read "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." The judge who married us is of the opinion that our wedding will stand, since ex post facto, or retroactive, laws are illegal under Article I of the United States Constitution. I can only say that I am grateful the Founding Fathers had the foresight not to make the U.S. Constitution as easily fungible as the state of California's.

Like all Americans, I was taught to believe in the promises those Founding Fathers made: you know, "All men are created equal," and that sort of thing. I always felt especially proud when my teachers would invoke the Declaration of Independence, because it was written by a long-lost cousin of mine (look again at my byline). I would only hope that the man who promised me "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" would agree that affairs of the heart should not be determined by popular vote.

As luck would have it, the organization that helped my father and me trace that bit of family genealogy is the same one that played a central role in revoking my right to marry this month: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members donated an estimated $15 million or more—nearly half the Prop 8 war chest—in a state where only 2 percent of the population is Mormon. That's made the Mormon church a prime target as the gay community does its Prop 8 postmortem. Some activists are calling for the IRS to revoke the church's tax-exempt status; others have suggested boycotting companies with Mormon executives who supported the ban and getting Hollywood types to pull out of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

But it's becoming clear to me that the main failing may have been our own. Most gay people I know seem to have forgotten—or in many cases never learned—the lessons of our collective history. For what transpired in California is only the latest skirmish in a three-decade battle between the religious right and the gay community in what has come to be known, euphemistically, as the culture wars. Had Prop 8 opponents taken their playbook from the gay-rights battles of the 1970s, I might not be in my current predicament. But most gay people my age and younger have little memory of those battles, in large part because many of the pioneers who fought them succumbed to a virus called HIV before they could teach us. And because gay rights have advanced so far since then—we are protected by nondiscrimination laws, our employers give us domestic-partner benefits, and several states recognize our unions—we probably took for granted that gay marriage was an inevitability.

How are we to learn our history? I decided to go back to my high-school government teacher for a civics lesson. Robert Garland, now 76, never spoke publicly about his sexual orientation when he was my instructor at Ulysses S. Grant High School in Van Nuys, Calif., even to the co-workers whom he and his longtime companion Tom Ethington socialized with: it was just understood that they were a couple. This past Aug. 20, on the 50th anniversary of their meeting, Garland finally could call Ethington what he had been all along: his spouse.

When Garland first started teaching at Grant in 1967, homosexuals lived in an America where they could be arrested just for being in a gay bar. "We were all closeted then," he recalls. It would be two more years before one such bar raid, at the Stonewall Inn in New York's Greenwich Village, would spark gays to riot, an event that launched the modern-day gay-rights movement. But even after the Stonewall riots, police harassment of homosexuals continued for many years. On Labor Day 1974, San Francisco policemen beat dozens of gay men who were standing outside the popular Toad Hall bar in the city's Castro district after one ignored an officer's order: "Off the street, faggot." The incident helped galvanize the gay community behind a Castro Street camera-store owner who had aspirations of becoming the first openly gay man elected to office in a major U.S. city. His name was Harvey Milk.

As part of my gay-history lesson, I went to a preview screening this past week of "Milk," a new movie being released Nov. 26 that stars Sean Penn as the gay-rights activist. Watching Penn dissolve into the role of the endearingly nebbishy San Francisco city supervisor who urged gays to come out of the closet and flex their political power, I was transported to an era I had lived through but didn't comprehend at the time. I had no idea who Harvey Milk was when I was in junior high (I was more preoccupied with Farrah Fawcett), though even if I had, I would have been too frightened to express any interest in what he was doing for fear someone might think I was homosexual—something I was loath to admit even to myself back in those days.

I had good reason to hide what I was feeling. In 1977, the pleasant redhead I recognized from commercials as the pitchwoman for Florida orange juice was suddenly all over the media, railing against the evils of homosexuality. "Homosexuals cannot reproduce so they must recruit," Anita Bryant declared as she launched a campaign to roll back a gay-rights ordinance that had been enacted just months earlier in Dade County, Fla. "If gays are granted rights, next we'll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with St. Bernards." What I didn't know at the time—probably none of us could have comprehended it—was that Bryant had, for the first time, rallied born-again Christians around a specific piece of legislation. And once they tasted victory that June, there was no turning back.

Bryant's triumph was a stunning loss for the nascent gay-rights movement. "Gay leaders had made a vast mistake in 1977 by underestimating the intense dedication of the legions of born-again Christians," the late journalist Randy Shilts wrote in his biography of Milk, "The Mayor of Castro Street." But the loss brought gays together like never before. To shouts of "Two, four, six, eight, separate the church and state," they marched through the streets of San Francisco, with Milk at the lead, shouting on his ever-present bullhorn. Gays weren't about to let it happen again, and they were ready when Bryant and her followers set their sights on California the next year.

My teacher Mr. Garland remembers that battle well. "They wanted to fire all the gay teachers," he says, recalling California state Sen. John Briggs's ballot initiative to prevent gays and lesbians from working in the public schools. SAVE OUR CHILDREN FROM HOMOSEXUAL TEACHERS, one newspaper ad for the Briggs initiative screamed. (That sentiment was echoed to great effect this fall in a Prop 8 commercial featuring a young girl informing her horrified mother, "Guess what I learned in school today? I learned how a prince married a prince, and I can marry a princess.")

Milk and the other gay-rights leaders pulled every string they had with their Democratic allies (President Jimmy Carter even urged Californians to vote "no"), but "the thing that helped to defeat it was Ronald Reagan coming out against it," Garland recalls. "Homosexuality is not a contagious disease like measles," the former California governor wrote in September 1978. "Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual's sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child's teachers do not really influence this." Why did Reagan—the man who revived the Republican Party by welcoming into the fold the very forces supporting Briggs and Bryant—go to bat for gays? Briggs said it was because Reagan was part of the "Hollywood crowd," though Shilts, in his Milk biography, reported, "Gay insiders credited Reagan's help to the fact that he had no small number of gays among his top staff."

But the gay community's joy over the defeat of Briggs would be short-lived. A few weeks after the election, Milk was assassinated along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone by Dan White, Milk's conservative nemesis on the Board of Supervisors. When White was convicted in 1979 of manslaughter—not murder—San Francisco gays took to the streets in what became known as the "White Night Riots."

So what can the life and times of Harvey Milk teach us now? Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter of "Milk," put it this way when the screening audience asked him why he'd made the film: "I felt like we were making the same mistakes again," said Black, who is gay and was raised a devout Mormon. (Black got his break in Hollywood writing for "Big Love," the HBO series about a polygamist family in Utah.) Before Milk, most gay leaders were content to let their straight allies fight their political battles for them—rather than take to the streets and demand their rights—because they feared a backlash if gays appeared too "uppity." Milk argued that the only way to win civil rights is to demand and take them—as Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr., Gloria Steinem and all the others did—rather than wait for them to be granted.

History has repeatedly favored Milk in this debate. Thousands of gay men died waiting for the government to respond to AIDS in the early 1980s, but no one paid much attention until Larry Kramer and his ACT UP activists took to the streets and demanded more funding for HIV therapies; by 1996, those drugs had hit the market and the course of the epidemic changed. In contrast, when gays and lesbians counted on Bill Clinton to let them serve openly in the military and to promote the burgeoning gay-marriage movement, they wound up with "don't ask, don't tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, which outlaws the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage.

Fast-forward to this year's battle. Gay leaders cried foul when the Prop 8 campaign targeted African-Americans with ads quoting Obama as saying he opposes gay marriage, since Obama had, in fact, come out in opposition to Prop 8. What the gay leadership failed to do was to press Obama on the obvious question: how can you say that you oppose gay marriage but also oppose banning it? (With mixed messages like that from Obama, gays shouldn't blame African-Americans—many of whom don't approve of same-sex marriage for religious reasons—for voting 70 percent in favor of banning it.) In the interest of getting a Democrat into the White House, gays gave Obama a free pass.

Likewise, gay leaders decided that the best way to fight Prop 8 was to downplay the "gay angle" so as not to offend the undecideds. That's right: no gay people allowed in the commercials defending gay marriage. Instead, we got Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other well-meaning straight folk talking about the danger of eliminating "fundamental rights" and stretching credulity by comparing the ballot initiative to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. If I was offended by the disingenuousness of these ads, I can only imagine what Milk would have thought.

At least he would have been encouraged by what he's seeing now. Just as the victory of Christian conservatives with Anita Bryant's initiative got gays to fight for their rights, so too has the passage of Prop 8 mobilized a new generation of activists. "The community's defeat on marriage equality has energized a whole group of young people who took for granted the civil rights of gay people," says the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center's Jim Key. The center brought together a group of young leaders who formed FAIR (Freedom.Action. Inclusion. Rights.) to channel all this new energy. Its motto is "From street to strategy."

Watching this revitalization of the gay-rights movement, I've come to realize that what Jeff and I did may not have been in vain after all. Even as same-sex couples in California stopped marrying, Connecticut gays and lesbians began walking down the aisle last week. By standing at the altar, Jeff and I made a commitment—to pledge our devotion to one another; to show our family and friends (and even those who oppose us) that we're all more alike than we are different; and to refuse to stand silently by while others try to take away our rights. This past week, Jeff and I decided to get our wedding rings engraved as a declaration of our newfound independence. They now say MAKING HISTORY. OCT. 25, 2008. For that, I think Thomas Jefferson and Harvey Milk would be proud.