Thursday, June 19, 2008 | return to: news & features


Breaking the glass, making history: Same-sex couples say, ‘I do’

by stacey palevsky, staff writer

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Three years ago, Sharon Papo and Amber Weiss stood under a chuppah in a Santa Cruz redwood grove and said "I do" in front of 100 relatives and friends.

They stomped on a glass, stood nose to nose wrapped in a tallit and sipped from a Kiddush cup, Jewish rituals that sealed them forever. And yet, to the government, their union was invisible.

That changed this week in San Francisco, when they added one word — lawfully — that was absent from their original vows.

"Amber, my beshert, my beloved," Papo said to Weiss inside San Francisco City Hall. "... I take you to be my lawfully wedded wife."

Just hours before, Papo and Weiss took their ivory beaded chiffon wedding gowns out of the closet of their Berkeley home, hopped on BART and walked into San Francisco's City Hall to exchange vows once more.

This time, they had legal recognition.

Journalists followed them like a bridal party, capturing the historic moment. About 30 photographers surrounded the couple in the City Hall rotunda, their camera shutters clicking so furiously that witnesses could barely hear the vows.

The women's eyes glistened during the ceremony. Only when officiant Mariposa Bernstein said what they had never heard before — "By the power vested in me by the state of California" — did the joyous couple let tears dampen their faces.

Papo, 29, and Weiss, 31, married June 17, the first day same-sex marriages were legally sanctioned by the state.

For many couples married that day, the ceremony was not the first time they pledged to love each other in sickness and in health, till death do they part.

Weiss and Papo, for instance, married in 2005 in Santa Cruz, with Rabbis Lavey Derby of Tiburon's Congregation Kol Shofar and Paula Marcus of Aptos' Temple Beth El co-officiating.

"In our hearts, we're married," Papo said. "But now, we're married in the eyes of the state, and that means the world to us."

Craig Persiko and Geoff Benjamin, both of San Francisco, spent a year planning a traditional Jewish ceremony, which they held in May 2000 at Buena Vista Park in San Francisco, five years after first meeting through mutual friends in Chicago.

They married again one year later in Vermont, and at San Francisco's City Hall in 2004, where State Assemblyman Mark Leno married the couple while they held their then-7-month-old daughter, Serafina.

"As far as my relationship, I don't feel any different," Persiko told j. in 2004, "but on a political level, it feels really empowering."

J. caught up with the couple recently. They are still together and will say "I do" a fourth time — on Saturday, June 21 in their backyard — in conjunction with a joint birthday party for their son and daughter. Cakes for both occasions will sweeten the afternoon.

Rabbi Mychal Copeland and Kirsti Copeland were first married eight years ago, by two rabbinic students on Princeton University's campus. And though the Jewish wedding was "a very powerful experience and awakened our friends and family to the permanency of our relationship ... it meant nothing at all in the civic sense," said Copeland, who works at Hillel at Stanford.

Since their wedding, they've become mothers and wed a second time at San Francisco's City Hall.

On June 18, the couple celebrated their marriage with a third wedding ceremony at the San Mateo County Courthouse. It was a strictly civil affair so as to not overshadow their original vows.

"We already sanctified our union through the eyes of our religious tradition," Copeland said. "It makes me realize the irony that in some of our communities, Judaism was ahead of this country's legal system by decades."

Hundreds of same-sex couples across the state legally married Tuesday, including 152 at San Francisco's City Hall.

Jews representing numerous organizations set up a chuppah, made from a rainbow striped tallit, near the steps of City Hall.

Volunteers passed out plates of marble cake frosted with the phrase "Mazel Tov" and invited couples to partake in the rituals of circling one another and breaking a glass. A klezmer band inspired many rounds of the song "Siman Tov U' Mazel Tov."

"It's so nice to see our community celebrate around such positive energy," said Lisa Finkelstein, director of the LGBT Alliance in San Francisco.

Finkelstein said she was proud to see representation from Congregations Sha'ar Zahav and Emanu-El, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the East Bay Federation, Jewish Community Relations Council, Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Mosaic.

Near the chuppah outside City Hall, "Energy 92.7" had set up a tent to broadcast live, interviewing "just married" couples and offering champagne flutes of sparkling cider.

It was quite a scene. Each time a couple walked outside — marriage licenses proudly raised in the air — the crowd erupted in applause. Supporters banged on drums and waved rainbow banners.

Members of the First Unitarian Church gave away nearly 400 cupcakes. Wedding photographers and pastry chefs passed out fliers and heart-shaped chocolates to advertise their services. A Mission Kids preschool class snaked through the crowd wearing green T-shirts. Their teacher, Abigail Sawyer, said she wanted to inspire "support for equality from a young age."

Same-sex couples from around the country flocked to the Golden State this week, since, unlike Massachusetts, marriage licenses were granted to California residents and nonresidents alike.

Mike Silverman and Dave Greenbaum traveled from Lawrence, Kan., to wed in San Francisco. They were married nine years ago at an Omaha, Neb., synagogue, an occasion that inspired them to scour Jewish wedding books and design a ceremony with "the right kavanah" (intention).

On June 17, they wed inside City Hall, one wearing a Hillel T-shirt from the University of Kansas, after which they circled one another under the chuppah outside.

"While the civil recognition was important, for me as a Conservative Jew, it was real when I said the Shehechiyanu and properly acknowledged the source of this immense and profound blessing," Greenbaum said.

Will Kansas recognize the Silverman-Greenbaum marriage when the couple returns to their home state? "I'll hold out for the Moshiach first," Greenbaum joked.

Same-sex couples could marry in any of California's 58 counties, though the biggest fanfare in the Bay Area was in San Francisco, which is why Papo and Weiss chose not to go to the closer-to-home Alameda County clerk's office.

"We feel a lot of gratitude toward the city of San Francisco," Papo said. "We wanted to get married where it all began."

That beginning was in 2004, when Mayor Gavin Newsom issued the order to grant licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

Weiss and Papo had just moved in together and weren't ready for marriage. And they were profoundly disappointed when the 4,000 unions were invalidated months later, after the courts ruled Newsom had exceeded his authority.

The issue of gay marriage has since moved through the California courts; meanwhile, the state legislature has twice approved bills giving same-sex couples the right to marry, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has twice vetoed.

On May 15, the California Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision that all citizens have a constitutional right to marry. Consequently, the court said in its sweeping ruling, the state can't prohibit gay and lesbian couples from legally marrying.

In preparation for the marriage rush, San Francisco and other counties deputized numerous volunteer marriage commissioners.

Jared Scherer, 34, signed up and on June 17 officiated the marriage of his friends Tyler Barrick and Spencer Jones during an emotional ceremony. Scherer looked official in a black gown — which he last wore during his commencement at Brandeis University.

"It was absolutely incredible, a true honor," said Scherer, who is Jewish, about presiding over his non-Jewish friends' marriage. "I felt really lucky to be able to help move the cause forward."

"The cause" could hit a brick wall in November, when a ballot initiative — if approved by a majority of voters — would define marriage as "valid and recognized" only between a man and a woman.

In light of this vulnerability, Karen Erlichman, Bay Area director of Jewish Mosaic, a national LGBT nonprofit, said it's especially important for individuals and organizations to show support for marriage equality.

While numerous Bay Area rabbis told j. they're ready and willing to legally marry same-sex couples, Erlichman said she's disappointed more Jewish organizations and leaders did not publicly state their support.

She applauded Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish and Family Children's Services of the East Bay for announcing public support — in print or online — for same-sex marriage. But she also questioned the dearth of backing from other Jewish groups.

"Jewish organizations have all kinds of policy statements — where are they when it comes to LGBT rights? Their silence is deafening," Erlichman said.

"Jewish tradition teaches us that we are all connected to each other, and we need to invest in the rights of all of us. It doesn't matter if you're LGBT or not. This is a big deal."

Two of the 14 couples in the Supreme Court case are interfaith Jewish couples: Diane Sabin and partner Jewelle Gomez live in San Francisco; Robin Tyler and Diane Olson reside in Los Angeles and were the first couple married June 16 at the L.A. County Courthouse in Beverly Hills.

The 14 couples were represented by several legal nonprofits, including the National Center for Lesbian Rights, through which Vanessa Eismann, a lawyer and a member of Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, worked on the case. She said it was both a professional privilege and a deeply personal pursuit.

She and her partner, Cate Whiting, were married by a Los Angeles rabbi in 2005. The absence of legality didn't temper the joy the women felt, but since both are lawyers, they knew that "regardless of how lavish a ceremony you have, you're only legally married when the license is signed," Eismann said.

The 33-year-old San Francisco resident gave birth to a baby boy in April; they want their son to grow up knowing his parents are married, which Eismann said was a shared sentiment among many of the plaintiffs.

"Often, the desire to marry isn't just for the couples themselves but out of a desire for their children to be treated equally under the law," she said.

Eismann and Whiting picked up their marriage license June 17 at City Hall. This week, they'll take the certificate with them to Los Angeles — so the rabbi who signed their ketubah finally will sign their legal marriage license as well.

"This battle isn't over," Eismann said. "Unfortunately, our rights are being put up for a popular vote."

Jewish couples are fighting for marriage equality in numerous ways.

Kathy Levinson and Naomi Fine of Palo Alto are choosing not to marry this summer. Instead, they will donate the money they would have spent on a formal wedding ceremony to organizations campaigning for marriage equality.

Papo and Weiss have asked friends and relatives in lieu of wedding gifts to "make a contribution to fight this hate bill," suggesting that donations go to Marriage Equality USA or Equality California.

They've also decided to be as public as possible with their sexual orientation. Papo casually mentions her relationship to everyone she encounters — the clerk at Office Max, the salesman at the shoe store. Likewise, Weiss introduces Papo as her wife everywhere she goes.

"It makes it personal," Weiss said. "It's harder to vote against the civil rights of someone you know."


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