How Kamala Harris helped secure marriage equality and officiate the first same-sex weddings

James Besanvalle
Saturday 15 August 2020 12:30
news

Kamala Harris, the newly-announced Democratic candidate for Vice President of the United States, has a strong track record when it comes to marriage equality.

On 12 February 2004, San Fransisco mayor Gavin Newsom declared the California Constitution's equal protection clause gave him authority to grant same-sex marriage licenses.

At the time, Harris was the district attorney of San Francisco and described what happened next in her memoir, The Truth We Hold:

There were throngs of people lined up around the block waiting to get in [to San Francisco City Hall]. They were counting down the minutes before a government would finally recognise their right to marry whomever they loved.

I got out of my car and walked up the steps of City Hall where I bumped into a city official. ‘Kamala, come and help us,’ she said, a glowing smile on her face. ‘We need more people to perform the marriages.'

I was delighted to be a part of it. I was quickly sworn in along with numerous city officials. We stood together performing marriages in the hallway, crowded into every nook and cranny of City Hall.

That elation was short-lived.

After two anti-marriage equality groups filed actions in San Francisco Superior Court, the city was instructed to halt the issuing of marriage licences to same-sex couples on 11 March.

And on 12 August that same year, the California Supreme Court voided all of the licenses that had been issued – amounting to around 4,000 same-sex couples.

During her tenure as district attorney, she's credited with establishing a hate crimes unit to investigate and prosecute anti-LGBTQ+ violence, as well as organising a conference in 2006 to ban the "gay and transgender panic defence". California eventually became the first state in the US to ban the latter.

But marriage equality was an uphill battle.

On 16 June 2008, the Supreme Court of California found that barring same-sex couples from marriage violated the state's Constitution. But on 5 November that same year, there was another major setback.

California voted to pass Proposition 8 – a law that essentially re-banned same-sex marriage and affirmed:

Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

Harris ran for the role of attorney general of California in 2010 and made opposing Prop 8 a key issue.

She described in her memoir:

It quickly became a central issue in the campaign... I made clear that I had no intention of spending a penny of the attorney general’s office resources defending Prop 8.

She narrowly won and subsequently followed through on her vow not to defend it.

After a series of fervent legal battles, Harris lent her support to the cause by filing a friend-of-the-court brief calling for Prop 8 to be struck down in 2013.

Then success – the US Supreme Court struck down Prop 8 on 28 June 2013 and ruled that same-sex marriages were able to resume in California.

After the announcement, Harris received a call from the Human Rights Campaign’s president Chad Griffin, asking if she would perform the first official ceremony for same-sex couple, Kris Perry and Sandy Stier.

According to her memoir, she responded:

Of course, I would love to. Nothing would make me more proud.

There was a huge crowd gathered to witness the ceremony take place, by the time Harris had made her way to City Hall.

She recalled:

Kris and Sandy arrived soon after beaming and ready to go. ‘Congratulations,’ I exclaimed as I hugged them both. They had been through so much for so long.

She then performed the ceremony, to a triumphant crowd.

Unfortunately, the day didn’t go off without a hitch though.

A clerk in Los Angeles was reportedly hesitant about issuing marriage licences because he wanted the all clear from an official first.

So Harris phoned him up immediately and directed him to do so:

On 26 June 2015, the Supreme Court ruled marriage equality legal across all 50 states in the US.

Since then, Harris has fought for other LGBTQ+ rights, including introducing the Do No Harm Act in 2018 to prevent the use of religious beliefs to be used as a means to discriminate against the community.

She’s also previously condemned the Trump administration’s removal of LGBTQ+ health-related information on federal websites.

It’s not all positive though. Harris has come under fire for denying gender confirmation surgery to trans prisoners when she was California's Attorney General, as well as her track record on criminal justice.

Journalist Lyz Lenz called out Harris on the former, asking last year:

During your time as Attorney General in California, you did send a brief seeking to deny gender affirmation surgery for trans inmates. You stated that at the time you were just enforcing the existing law. But with this history, how can trans people trust that you’ll advocate for them and not just enforce discriminatory laws?

Harris responded:

When that case came up, I had clients, and one of them was the California Department of Corrections. It was their policy. When I learned about what they were doing, behind the scenes, I got them to change the policy.

The US election is scheduled to be held on 3 November.

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