Beginning on February 12, 2004, and continuing until the California Supreme Court forced it to stop on March 11, the city of San Francisco issued more than 4,000 marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Five of those couples are presented here and have been together from as few as three to as many as 19 years, and all expressed awe at having participated in such a historical event, the beginning of a civil rights revolution.

While gay and lesbian couples were being married at City Hall, visible changes in most areas of the city were less noticeable. Even in the Castro, signs of the change were subtle. From signs in store windows and window displays to seeing male couples in tuxes and female couples in wedding dresses running to take public transportation to City Hall, it all seemed so natural and unremarkable.

But the important visual impact wrapped around City Hall during those first few days; the impact of that scene is undeniable. Seeing couples joyfully standing in line for hours to do something most Americans take for granted, removed the debate over same-sex marriage from the theoretical; it gave the issue a human face, a diversity of human faces. It also took the second-class status of civil unions out of the equation for a few weeks while straight and gay couples stood side by side and had their relationships deemed legally equal.

Some have compared the prohibition on gay marriage to Jim Crow segregation, and what has happened in San Francisco to the Montgomery bus boycott. But while some similarities exist, I believe the more appropriate parallel is to voting rights. Historical arguments against extending voting rights to males without property, blacks, and women have all hinged on the idea that expanding the voting franchise would somehow diminish those rights for those already in possession of them.

The same arguments of diminishment of quality have been used against extending the franchise of marriage to gays and lesbians, as if many heterosexuals haven’t already done much to demean the institution. Wouldn’t seeing thousands of people scrambling for the rights you take for granted somehow increase your esteem of those rights? Perhaps what social/religious conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage fear most is that the thin veneer of what has passed for truth on this argument will be torn away by reality and is why conservative legal groups fought so stridently to stop San Francisco’s same-sex marriages as quickly as possible. Each day that gay marriages were being performed, opposition was eroding. Hearts and minds were being changed.

February 12 is National Freedom to Marry Day. But on February 12, 2004, unlike prior years, protesters already in wedding garb were welcomed into San Francisco’s City Hall and offered the marriage licenses they had been denied for so long.

Kate and Susan were married on the first day. Kate remarked that: “By the end of the afternoon, it felt like everybody we knew was there getting married. It was like this huge party in addition to a political act in addition to a personal act of commitment.”

Huong and Alison were also married on February 12 with their 17-month-old son, Theryn, in tow. Most couples exchanged rings, jewelry, or other keepsakes. Huong and Alison passed Theryn between them. Mabel Teng, the City Assessor who conducted their ceremony, said she had never seen that before. Alison remembers how she felt that day. “There was just this wonderful overwhelming sense of love and excitement and change, like all of a sudden these people were having their first taste of freedom,” she said.

Zack and Steve, together for three years, were married on Friday, February 13. In talking about the day they were married, Steve exclaimed, “This is a wonderful city!” The pair wanted to be photographed at The Palace of Fine Arts, a special location for them, where they hope to have the reception.

After a quick trip to Tiffany & Co. for wedding bands, Tim and Justin stood in line on Valentine’s Day. They would have to come back the next day to get married, which they did gladly. The couple, who had previously registered as domestic partners, mentioned how different it felt this time. “When we got our domestic partnership, there were actually couples there getting married. It was a very different feel for the couples getting married than it was for us,” one said. But that was not the case this time; this time they were the ones getting married.

Carolyn and Mona, together for 19 years, stood in line for seven hours on February 16 despite Carolyn’s recent surgery. “[The line] was wrapped all around City Hall … People [were] honking and waving and [giving] thumbs up and congratulations and taxis driving around every 10 to 15 minutes saying free rides for newlyweds … and then all the people coming by and giving us food and drink and umbrellas … people coming to help us celebrate. … It was a wonderful, wonderful day,” Carolyn recalls.

Carolyn tells the story of how, while standing in the final hallway leading to the clerk’s office, the high ceilings and marble walls began to reverberate with people singing, “Chapel of Love.” At that moment, a song from the American pop culture dustbin took on a new and poignant significance. “I didn’t realize how meaningful it would be to have the support of community,” Carolyn said.

In The Fray is a nonprofit staffed by volunteers. If you liked this piece, could you please donate $10?