Up until Friday, Valentine’s Day had never been the happiest of days for Shelly Bailes.
For years, the longtime Davis resident would wake up in the morning and hear on the news about couples rushing to the courthouse to get married on this, the so-called “Day of Love,” “and I would burst into tears,” Bailes recalled Friday.
Valentine’s Day, it seemed, was only for certain kinds of couples, and Bailes and her longtime partner, Ellen Pontac, weren’t one of them, in the eyes of the state anyway.
But the Davis residents made a point of protesting every Valentine’s Day by showing up at the Yolo County Clerk/Recorder’s Office to ask for a marriage license, knowing full well what the result would be.
They did it year after year.
“It was devastating,” Bailes said. “To ask for a marriage license and for someone to say, ‘No … you’re a second-class citizen,’ it was very emotional.”
Beginning on Valentine’s Day 2007, Yolo County Clerk/Recorder Freddie Oakley began trying to take some of the sting out of the rejection by issuing “certificates of inequality” to same-sex couples who came in on Valentine’s Day.
The certificate, labeled an “unofficial document intended to provoke thought and having absolutely no force of law,” made it clear where Oakley stood on California’s ban on same-sex marriage.
“Based on your choice of spouse, I may Not issue a license to marry to you, and whereas I am unable to divine any legitimate governmental purpose in the regulation of your marriage partner’s gender, now therefore I issue this Certificate of Inequality to you because your choice of marriage partner displeases some people whose displeasure is, apparently, more important than principles of equality,” the document read.
That first Valentine’s Day her office handed out 20 certificates of inequality and the tradition continued for six more years, often amid a scene of protest and counter-protest at the Yolo County Administration Building.
On one side would be the people protesting the same-sex marriage ban, said Oakley’s chief of staff, Tom Stanionis, and on the other side would be people protesting the protest and Oakley’s certificates of inequality.
For those same-sex couples who made their way to the counter to request a marriage license, Oakley was always the one there to greet them, Bailes said.
“She always had tears in her eyes,” Bailes recalled, “but she insisted on being the one to turn us down — she didn’t want to put any of her clerks through that.
“Freddie stood with us even when it wasn’t a popular thing to do,” Bailes added. “She was one of the few officials in Yolo County that always stood by us.”
Things changed over the years, of course, including for Bailes and Pontac.
When then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom began performing same-sex marriages in 2004, Bailes and Pontac were among the 4,000 couples to marry. But those marriages later would be invalidated by the state Supreme Court.
Another window briefly opened in June 2008 when the California Supreme Court ruled the state’s same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional. That window stayed open until November, when California voters enacted Proposition 8, banning such marriages once again.
But Bailes and Pontac were first in line in Yolo County when that window opened, and Oakley even performed the marriage ceremony. Those 2008 marriages remained legal even after Proposition 8 passed.
So while they’ve been legally married for six straight Valentine’s Days now, the longtime activists never stopped working on behalf of equality for everyone. And when the U.S. Supreme Court last June cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California — by holding that defenders of Proposition 8 lacked standing to appeal a lower court’s ruling striking down the initiative as unconstitutional — Bailes and Pontac were among those cheering the loudest.
“Discrimination has lost, bigotry has lost and love has won. That’s the way it should be,” Bailes said at the time.
Same-sex marriages commenced all over the state within weeks, and perhaps have become so commonplace as to go unnoticed in some quarters. In fact, it’s unknown how many same-sex couples have tied the knot in Yolo County since then, because the clerk/recorder’s office doesn’t keep track of gender, Stanionis said.
“It’s part of that equality,” he explained.
Nevertheless, the office remains ground zero in a way for the fight for equality, and this year Pontac and Bailes returned not to protest, but to celebrate.
They had hoped to show their appreciation and thanks to Oakley in particular, for her longtime support of marriage equality; however, the clerk/recorder was home sick on Friday, Stanionis said.
Still, they and others shared cake and swapped stories just outside Oakley’s office.
Carrie Hamlin and Christa Haney were among them. The couple, like Pontac and Bailes, have been through their share of wedding ceremonies, “some legally sanctioned, some not,” Haney noted.
“We have so many anniversaries,” she laughed.
Their first ceremony was in Central Park in Davis in 2000; next would be a 2004 ceremony in San Francisco. Neither ended up carrying any legal weight. Finally, when that window opened in 2008, they married in Sacramento.
The couple, who now live in Woodland, have known Pontac and Bailes for years and were happy to come celebrate with them on Friday, now that “everybody can be married,” Hamlin said.
For her part, Bailes was happy this Valentine’s Day was purely a day of celebration.
“We’ve been coming here for 14 years,” she noted.
And for the first time, she said, “we’re going to go home to celebrate. We’ve got the bottle of Champagne.”
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy