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San Francisco celebrates the 20th anniversary of the historic ‘Winter of Love’

Spoiler: There were some happy tears.

Eleven city officials stand in front of bright flags on a balcony in San Francisco City Hall. Mayor London Breed is speaking at a podium.
Mayor London Breed speaks at a City Hall ceremony commemorating the 20th anniversary of the "Winter of Love." | Source: Michaela Neville/The Standard

“City Hall is the place to be every Valentine’s Day,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said, addressing a crowd gathered on the Mayor’s Balcony in City Hall’s grand rotunda on Wednesday. Below her, dozens of couples traversed the marble floors, posing for photos, clutching paperwork and occasionally stopping to gaze dreamily into each other’s eyes.

It’s true—couples get married at City Hall every Valentine’s Day. But this year’s celebrations marked a unique milestone: Twenty years of San Francisco recognizing same-sex marriages. The city was the first in the country to do so, years before the Supreme Court would recognize their validity.

Wednesday’s anniversary brought city officials together with a veritable who’s-who of major figures from the marriage equality movement for a moment of official recognition followed by emotional vow renewals and new marriages presided over by Breed and San Francisco’s own drag laureate, D’Arcy Drollinger.

In February 2004, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered city staff to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of federal law. Weddings began on Feb. 12, kicking off a marriage mania known as the “Winter of Love” and forcing the issue of marriage equality into the national conversation. More than 4,000 LGBTQ+ couples got married in San Francisco during the weeks that followed. People flew in from around the country to wed, and the Assessor-Recorder’s Office stayed open for the entire first weekend to accommodate the surge in demand for marriage certificates.

A line of people, many wearing rain coats and holding umbrellas, stands outside of San Francisco City Hall. The line stretches down the block.
Couples wait in line in front of San Francisco City Hall in 2004 for marriage licenses. | Source: Deborah Coleman/Getty Images

It was a joyous time, but it wouldn’t last long. Just a month after weddings began, California’s Supreme Court ordered the city to stop issuing same-sex marriage licenses pending further legal review. 

LGBTQ+ San Franciscans got “a month of happiness, and then it abruptly closed,” said former City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who defended the city legally during that time.

What followed was a yearslong fight for equality, one that many who were at City Hall Wednesday know all too well.

Jeanne Rizzo and Pali Cooper, a lesbian couple who were legally married in 2008 and renewed their vows Wednesday, recalled that the Winter of Love had been bittersweet for them. In 2004, they had been together for 15 years and were raising a son. Excited to marry, they set a date of March 11, 2004.

But as they were walking up to the City Clerk’s Office, they were informed that the operation was being shut down. They recalled how sad it felt to leave City Hall that day and come home to what was meant to be their wedding celebration with “a wedding cake that no one wanted to cut.” 

By the next morning, they were plaintiffs in the city’s legal battle over marriage equality, one that would wind through the courts for years before ultimately succeeding.

John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, a gay couple who also renewed their vows on Wednesday—20 years after marrying during the first hour that same-sex marriages were allowed in the city—were moved by the momentousness of the anniversary.

Three men wearing suits stand together smiling for a photo.
Then-Mayor Gavin Newsom poses with couple Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis at a film screening in 2005. | Source: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

“We didn’t see it coming when we heard these words … ‘I pronounce you spouses for life,’” Gaffney said of their wedding. “That’s when we really felt—‘Wow! This is what it feels like to be equal.’”

Sharing her thoughts after the vow renewals and wedding ceremonies were over, Drollinger (who cut a striking figure in a festive pink dress and pink wig) said the day was a good reminder that San Francisco is “a beacon for the LGBTQ+ community and beyond.

“This city doesn’t take my community for granted,” Drollinger said. 

When the new vow renewals and marriages wrapped up, the crowd stayed to mingle. Many of the attendees seemed to know one another well, having fought the same fight all those years ago.

“No one knows those vows inside and out like we do, and the true meaning of for better and for worse,” Gaffney said. “What could be worse than having your marriage taken away and declared null and void? But what could be better than having the opportunity to tell our personal story and make social change?”

Michaela Neville can be reached at