SAN FRANCISCO -- By the power vested in him by this bastion of liberal politics, Mayor Willie Brown Jr. pronounced dozens of gay and lesbian couples virtual spouses yesterday in the first such mass nuptials held by a U.S. city.
The "domestic partnership ceremony" for nearly 200 couples carried no legal weight, because California law, like that of every other state, does not recognize marriages between homosexuals.
But with the issue of same-sex unions creating increased debate and legislative maneuvering across the country, the ceremony amounted to a statement complete with a lesbian couple in matching white wedding gowns, a gay couple honoring 30 years of togetherness and a mayor proclaiming his respect for committed love, whatever form it may take.
"We're leading the way here in San Francisco for the rest of the state and the rest of the nation," Mr. Brown said, "to fully embrace the diversity and legitimacy of people in love, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation."
The rainbow flag of gay pride hung from the temporary City Hall on Van Ness Avenue during the ceremony in the Herbst Theater, and the musical accompaniment included "Somewhere," the "West Side Story" classic with the lines "There's a place for us, somewhere a place for us."
Many of the couples had already been semi-officially joined in private commitment ceremonies and had registered as domestic partners, a procedure that the City of San Francisco instituted in 1991 to provide limited benefits for gay couples.
But the mass ceremony allowed Maxine Kincora, a 39-year-old artist in a satin wedding dress, standing next to the lacier version of her partner of 12 years, Jan Stafford, to express "a deeper level of commitment."
"It's recognizing that this is a lifetime commitment," she said. "And it tells me that my city recognizes me and that my relationship is valid."
Other cities allow gay couples to register as domestic partners, Mr. Brown said, but none have gone so far as San Francisco in recognizing same-sex unions. Gay partners of city employees have recognized claims to share in their health, retirement and other benefits.
The city also plans to hold more such mass ceremonies, in part to attract gay tourists and to bolster city coffers with the $30 ceremony fee, said Carole Migden, the San Francisco supervisor who sponsored the ordinance.
In the packed hall of the theater, friends and relatives applauded wildly as couple after couple walked holding hands to the stage, where they recited an oath of commitment.
Pub Date: 3/26/96