It's funny that, in a city that prides itself on its nonconformity, so many people make the exact same argument exactly the same way. To wit, after I write that Mayor Gavin Newsom was wrong to flout state law by authorizing same-sex marriages, a legion of readers write comparing gay and lesbian newlyweds with civil rights legend Rosa Parks. To say that Newsom should have more respect for the law, they argue, is like saying Rosa Parks should not have engaged in her landmark act of "civil disobedience."
I think the term "delusions of grandeur" fits here.
In 1955, Parks was a lone black woman on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, who after a hard day's work courageously refused a driver's edict to give up her seat to a white man. "I did not get on the bus to get arrested," she later said. "I got on the bus to go home."
For that, Parks was arrested. She was fingerprinted and jailed for two hours until a $100 bond was posted. Parks then was convicted and ordered to pay a fine, which she refused to pay so that she could challenge the segregation law. Ultimately, her resistance led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the segregation law.
Parks was a pioneer in a nascent civil rights movement that demanded great personal courage. Many of her contemporaries paid for their beliefs with their lives. Parks' family endured threats. The home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who led the Parks-inspired black boycott of Montgomery's bus system, was bombed while King's wife and children were inside. King's price to achieve his dream was his life.
How can anyone compare the Parks experience with that of San Francisco's same-sex newlyweds? They don't face arrest. They won't be jailed. They won't be fined. City Hall is sponsoring the ceremonies. Why, the City Hall cafe sold splits of Champagne so there would be bubbly at last weekend's weddings. Civil disobedience? Hardly.
Rosa Parks stood firm in hostile territory, the segregation-era South. Under Jim Crow, blacks had trouble registering to vote, could not sit at lunch counters, and had to drink from separate water fountains, use different bathrooms and send their precious children to substandard segregated schools. Segregation was a system that subjected blacks to relentless humiliation.
San Francisco is gay-centric. Jewelers and liquor stores offered discounts to gay and lesbian couples about to take their vows. The city bureaucracy is so gay savvy that it has adopted the acronym LGBTQQ for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning youth. Not only has the Special City registered domestic partners for more than a decade, but City Hall will pay for your sex change -- if you work for the city or are the registered partner of a city staffer.
Parks stood up against a powerful government. The mayor is the powerful government. He could have searched for a way to challenge state marriage law without violating it. But this stunt curried more favor.
When Rosa Parks defied the law, her fate and the outcome of her cause were uncertain. In San Francisco, the issue of gay rights has been settled in every area but marriage. As Jesse Jackson noted, gays always could vote and enjoyed other rights. The only question left is whether same-sex marriage can be called marriage -- and there are plenty of gay people who don't care about the outcome.
If there's a group that has to work up courage to voice its beliefs in this town, it's religious fundamentalists. Ask the Rev. Eugene Lumpkin, whom then-Mayor Frank Jordan fired from the Human Rights Commission in 1993 because the reverend said he believed, as the Bible told him, that "the homosexual lifestyle is an abomination against God."
It didn't matter that no one could point to any discriminatory act on Lumpkin's part. What he thought was his crime.
As for the self-congratulatory term "civil disobedience" -- well, the civil part is missing. Hello. It can't be civil disobedience when there is no civil penalty and there is a government sponsor.
But the Special City has long held a cheap view of civil disobedience. Remember last year's anti-war demonstrators. They deliberately clogged city streets and blocked access to government buildings under the mantle of "civil disobedience" -- only to react indignantly when they were arrested. (No worries. This is San Francisco. Former District Attorney Terence Hallinan dropped charges on nearly all of the 2,300 protesters who were arrested.) Only in San Francisco does civil disobedience mean never having to say, "Guilty, your honor."