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Mara McWilliams

Our Gay Marriage

by Mara McWilliams

Renee and I were married over the weekend, Monday 2/16/04 in San Francisco City Hall, along with thousands of other happy couples. The event itself was simply beautiful from beginning to end, despite the pouring rain and freezing cold. Hundreds of us camped out around San Francisco City Hall in the cold and rain for the opportunity to be issued a marriage license and get legally married, even if the marriage might only be legal for a few days.

I have heard last weekend's gay and lesbian weddings in San Francisco described as a media circus of marriages that aren't worth the paper on which they're printed. I would like to share with you what I experienced when my partner, Renee, my daughter Serena and I stood in the pouring rain and bitter cold on Sunday night, February 15-16, 2004.

We showed up outside City Hall at 10:15 PM Sunday night to stake out our spot on the cold sidewalk surrounding the building. Luckily, we were able to park directly across from our little area, which was perfect for our daughter, who was camping in the back seat with the doors locked. Not that there was anything to fear; I've never felt so safe on a big city street in the middle of the night. Within five minutes of arrival, the rain started to trickle down and resigned moans filled the air. We thought we were prepared, bringing sleeping bags, padding, a camping chair, a propane heater, thermoses of coffee and soup, an ice chest and food. We didn't expect the rain, but were grateful for the single mini-umbrella that was stashed in the trunk.

The couple next to us, William and Eddie, were less prepared than we, as were many couples who flew in from around the world. They huddled together under a single large umbrella with a single sleeping bag covering their legs. Eddie had flown in from Utah to get married to his love, William. We talked about the adventure we were all embarking on in the name of love, and although drenched, everyone was excited.

Our 8 year old daughter was snugly situated in a sleeping bag in the back seat of our car watching a DVD, calling us on her walkie-talkie taunting us about how dry she was!! Couples around us laughed and we bonded like family. Serena soon fell asleep in the back seat, and we settled in for a long, wet night.

Within half an hour of our arrival, people began walking around handing out bottled water, cookies, and chips. The individuals handing out these simple luxuries were not part of the line, but supportive citizens of the city of San Francisco who believed in our commitment not only to each other, but our commitment to equality for all.

By midnight the City had porta-potties delivered to the corner and not a moment too soon. I should note that the city didn't know there would be an influx of 4,000 people to a single city block for the chance to wed. Yet, we were there and the city responded with compassion, doing their utmost to meet the needs of those waiting to be married. A San Francisco Police van slowly circled the building all night to keep us safe.

At about 11:00pm, there was a thunderous crash: a car accident in the middle of the intersection of Polk and Grove. A man in his mid-twenties hadn't realized there was a traffic light there (which was red) and drove through the intersection as another car was passing through on the green light. Dozens of people from the queue ran over to offer first aid. Two women from the queue who were nurses attended to a woman who had sustained a minor knee injury. Another woman had bumped her head during the accident. Renee stood by her to make sure she remained conscious and was safe until the police and ambulance arrived. Overall, injuries were minor and no one had to go to the hospital.

Throughout the night, people, just regular people who wanted to help, continued to come around passing out free hot coffee, hot chocolate, oatmeal, umbrellas, trash bags so we could try to stay dry, HOT PIZZA, bottled water, juice, donuts, muffins, and cookies!!!! We were so deeply moved that these individuals and couples (straight and gay alike) were willing to brave the elements with us in order to give us support. I thanked a man, and he said “I'm not ready to get married yet, but I wanted to thank you all for what you're doing for us.” I said “thank you again”, and he said, “No, thank YOU.” Literally, I felt that Love was a living and breathing entity surrounding all of us.

We got a mere 2 hours of sleep when at 7:15 am we were told that the line would begin moving soon. When it began to consolidate we jumped up, leaving our sleeping bags and everything on the sidewalk. I didn't care if the stuff would be there when I returned.

I honestly do not know what time City Hall opened on Monday morning; I was exhausted and excited and hoping that we would be able to get married. We had been turned away the previous morning at 9:00 am because City Hall was processing licenses as fast as possible, but could not keep up with the overwhelming demand. This morning we were anxious, yet time was of no matter.

As Renee was standing in line for the porta-johns, a man was there with his four young boys. He was attempting to corral them and keep them from stepping too far into the street; it reminded Renee of the saying about herding cats. His partner must have been holding their place in line. Someone asked him about his children. He answered that he and his partner had adopted each of them through their county. He said with a smile, “we told them we'll take anyone, but they just keep giving us boys!” The lady commented on their outfits, and he said “oh yes, we've had them each color-coded since Day One.” It was then Renee noticed that each boy was indeed wearing his own color; red, navy, yellow, etc. She wondered how else one would keep track of the clothing of four boys all relatively close together in age.

It was a beautiful thing to be greeted in a dry warm building by smiling and supportive city workers, sheriffs, and volunteers who all volunteered their time (without pay) to help marry all the gay and lesbian couples who had waited through the night.

Mara McWilliams and Renee Mangrum cheer at a reception for newly married couples in SF

The halls within City hall were filled with anxious brides and grooms and cheers of congratulations. Ladies rushed to the bathroom to dry off and fix their makeup; many held flowers that they had brought with them the night before. The building was alive with joy, exhilaration, excitement, mutual support, and love. The volunteers greeted us with broad smiles and encouragement; many of them walked up and down the line with orange juice and water, as the wait once inside City Hall was still to be 90 minutes. The City workers/volunteers were clearly determined to process as many marriages as possible that day: volunteers walked up and down the line, passing out the marriage application and repeatedly calling out instructions to help us complete it. Fully 6 different volunteers came by and checked our completed application while we waited in line, to make sure it would be correct when we reached the Clerk's office.

The atmosphere in the Clerk's office was downright festive. Volunteers called out "next patient!" or "next victim!" to keep the applicants and paperwork flowing quickly.

When we received our marriage license there were tears of joy in my eyes. As we walked down the hall, License in hand, passing the line of people still waiting, people yelled and cheered their congratulations and we proudly held up our license for all to see. We were quickly escorted to the Rotunda and had our ceremony with our daughter, Serena, as our Maid of Honor. Despite the scores of people in the building, it was as if the only people there were my new bride Renee, my daughter Serena, our Deputy Marriage Commissioner David Owen, and myself. After taking our vows with tears streaming down our cheeks, we proceeded to the Clerk Recorder's office where more volunteers recorded our licenses and yelled out our names in a room jammed with newly married couples. We received our license and proudly walked out the front doors and down the steps of City Hall. People cheered and shouted their congratulations while passing cars honked their support. Walking down City Hall's steps with my new wife and my daughter, marriage license in hand, I felt elated and liberated!

The city clerks, deputies, sheriffs and volunteers must have been exhausted, but it was not to be seen in their attitudes. Licenses were rapidly processed and volunteers did everything within their power to accommodate us. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, was joyous and supportive. I thanked an officer for volunteering his time; his response: "I am honored to be a part of this."

I would like to thank the City of San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom, and all the of the generous volunteers who made ours and thousands of other marriages possible this past week: you are to be commended for your support, kindness and compassion. You are heroes!

This experience did several things for me. It gave me a feeling of liberation, validation and equality to which I believe all gay people are entitled. It also restored my faith in humanity. I saw that there are still people who care enough about others to commit truly selfless acts. This was about our right to marry, but it was also about the legal recognition of love and the overwhelming support the people and City of San Francisco have yet again shown the worldwide gay community. Thank you to all the kind and generous people who handed out the simple comforts of warm coffee and trash bags and the like!!!! We really were so grateful for your kindness!

To all of you I mentioned above, thank you for giving us the opportunity to marry the people we love. Despite the soaking rain, the cold, and standing in line for the better part of 13 hours, I would not trade this experience for anything.

Mara McWilliams resides peacefully in Northern California with her daughter and her wife, Renee. She has dedicated her life to raising her daughter; volunteering, preserving her mental health, and helping others improve themselves whenever she can. She expresses herself through painting, drawing, and writing.

Mara is the author of Outta My Head and In Your Face. The poetry and artwork of Mara McWilliams reflects a journey that led her through the darkest depths of mental illness, to a place where she more often experiences a peace that is the result of tremendous hard work and dedication to a better, balanced, life. This book of selected poems and paintings by Mara McWilliams chronicles that journey. She hopes to give the reader a view into the tortured mind of the undiagnosed mentally ill, as well as to give hope to those whose lives have been touched by mental illness, that a full and beautiful life is possible.

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