The Fight For Marriage Equality in Pennsylvania is Just Beginning

Like Gavin Newsom before him, Montco's Bruce Hanes planted the seeds that will result in a victory for equal rights.

Back in 2004, then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, an up-and-coming politician with a seemingly unlimited future, did something shocking: He threw open the doors to City Hall and invited his city’s substantial gay and lesbian population to come in, get a marriage license, and have a wedding.

For about a month after that, the nation was treated to a sight it had never really seen before: Hundreds of gay people exchanging vows, promising to have and to hold and in sickness and in health that all the rest of us straight folks had been doing for centuries. It was a beautiful, moving sight, and it was the beginning of a change of heart for many Americans on the gay marriage issue.

Then the California Supreme Court put a stop to it.

Newsom, it turned out, didn’t have the authority to overturn the state’s gay marriage ban all by himself. He’d exceeded his authority by making decisions best left to courts and the legislatures. The court made him quit issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. The cause of marriage in California had been dealt a high-profile setback.

Sound familiar?

Montgomery County Register of Wills Bruce Hanes doesn’t have Newsom’s gorgeous hair or million-dollar smile, but he shares Newsom’s willingness to push the boundaries of the law in favor of civil rights. His office issued roughly 150 marriage licenses to gay and lesbian Pennsylvanians in recent weeks. Hanes was hailed as a hero—by Rachel Maddow no less—and provided a turning point in a state that seemed to have strenuously avoided a meaningful debate on the subject.

His efforts have also been halted by a court. But in a weird way, that’s OK. The fight for gay marriage in Pennsylvania was never going to be so simple that Hanes was going to win it all by himself. Like Newsom before him, he’s planted the seeds for a more lasting victory.

A decade later, it’s easy to see California’s story has a happy ending. Newsom’s act was the first in a series of actions that made gay marriage actually and truly legal in California today, blessed (more or less) by both the state and federal supreme courts.

In Pennsylvania, it had seemed like the state might avoid the tide of gay marriage legalization that has slowly but surely been spreading down the Eastern Seaboard. With Republicans in charge of the governor’s mansion and the General Assembly (and with Daryl Metcalfe putting the kibosh on anything he deems in contravention of “God’s law”) it seemed like we might never get down to having a real debate—and real action—on the issue here.

To torture a metaphor: Hanes helped get the ball on the field. The ACLU’s lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania’s gay marriage ban will help push that ball over the goal line. Victory is within reach. And if victory doesn’t occur there, it will occur sometime soon after that. Polls show a growing majority of Pennsylvanians now favor gay marriage. This is not the sort of issue on which popular will can or will be long denied.

So yes, there was a moment on Thursday to be sad that Hanes’ valiant effort to bring marriage equality to his little fiefdom had been brought to a halt. But there wasn’t much despair, and that makes sense: We’ve seen what happened in California. It will happen here. The judge’s decision didn’t end the fight for gay marriage here—it’s just getting started.