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Proud to Testify for Marriage Equality

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I was proud to testify this week in what I believe will soon be seen as one of the defining civil rights cases of our time, Perry v. Schwarzenegger. I did so as a Republican mayor, a father, and a former police chief with over 26 years of experience on the force. But I also testified as an American who has seen the effects of discrimination - and who believes that discrimination against anyone, anywhere, is unacceptable.

My thinking on this important issue has evolved significantly in the past few years. Not long ago, I believed that civil unions were an acceptable alternative for same-sex couples. Like many people, I mistakenly thought there was no difference between a civil union and a marriage.

My eyes were opened in 2007, when I had to decide whether to support a ban on same-sex marriage in my capacity as mayor of San Diego. Through conversations with friends and supporters, I realized that my position was inconsistent with one of my core principles as a police officer and as mayor, which is that every community deserves to be treated with equal dignity and respect.

The irony is that I held this mistaken view about marriage equality even though my oldest daughter, Lisa, is a lesbian. When she was growing up, Lisa was my constant companion on weekends as I ran errands and did chores around the house. I called her my shadow. We are as close as a father and daughter can be, and when she came out to her family, my wife and I told her we loved her and only wanted her to be happy.

Running for mayor in 2005, when my city had a host of financial and legal problems, I did not believe that marriage equality was an issue for city governments to address. When I was asked, I said I supported civil unions, believing they were an acceptable compromise on a divisive issue. I frankly did not give the issue much thought.

Then two years later, the City Council passed a resolution supporting a court challenge to California's ban on same-sex marriage. I had 10 days to decide whether to sign or veto the resolution.

I was advised that signing the resolution could end my political career, because I would be reversing a position I took as a candidate, and potentially alienating my Republican base. Lisa, who had worked to my campaign, told me she would support my decision because it was important for San Diego that I remained its mayor.

As late as the evening of the ninth day, I believed I would veto it.

That night, my wife and I hosted a gathering of gay and lesbian friends and neighbors in our backyard. I told them I intended to veto the resolution. Then I listened as they explained how disappointed and hurt they were that I would want to deny them a fundamental civil right, the right to marry the person you love and have that marriage recognized by the rest of society.

About 15 people spoke that night. But before the first one was finished, I shared their disappointment. It was then that I realized that all opposition to same-sex marriage, including my own opposition, was grounded in prejudice.

I knew my position was wrong, and that marriage equality was an issue I needed to address as mayor. And I knew I would sign the resolution.

The next day, I explained my position to the citizens of San Diego. The press conference became an instant hit on YouTube. As I said that day, I hope that everyone will find someone they love deeply, someone with whom they can share life's experiences and grow old together. I cannot look anyone in the face and tell them that their relationships, their very lives, are any less meaningful than the marriage I share with my wife.

Sometimes I find it hard to believe that I came so close to making the wrong decision, and to endorsing government-sanctioned discrimination. As it turns out, I was reelected to a second term the next year. My position on marriage equality definitely made it more difficult. But I know I would have regretted vetoing that resolution a lot more than losing that election.

Now, more than two years later, I have testified in federal court about my decision and the rationale behind it. I told the court that, as someone who has spent most of his lifetime in public service, I understand that when government tolerates discrimination against any class of people, it makes it easier for citizens to do the same thing.

I was proud that Lisa was in court with me, along with her wife, Meaghan, whom she married in Vermont last month. Meaghan is like another daughter to me, and she has brought great happiness into our family.

The defendants in this case -- those who would deny equal rights to others -- would like us to believe that they are the true victims of discrimination. They argue that their opposition to marriage equality has made them targets of violence. They've made this argument as their excuse for withholding documents from the public, and it is as self-serving as it is inaccurate.

From my own experience as a police officer and mayor, I can say that the overwhelming evidence is that violence is directed against gays and lesbians, not those who would deny them equality.

In my own city, there have been terrible hate crimes committed against gays and lesbians, including a savage beating just a few years ago of a young man attending the Pride Festival. The perpetrators of this type of violence are only encouraged by those who want their own prejudices to be validated through government-sanctioned discrimination. It's like giving them permission.

History tells us that the first step toward true equality has always been equality under the law. Denying gays and lesbians the right to marry is no different than denying black people the right to sit in a "whites only" section of the restaurant. The law and our own experience tell us that "separate but equal" is an oxymoron. Separate is never equal.

I'm happy that Lisa and Meaghan were able to marry -- as would be anyone who knows them and sees their love and commitment to each other. But I'm also saddened to think that because some people would deny them this fundamental civil right, they had to been married 3,000 miles from their friends, co-workers and family. I hope that Perry v. Schwarzenegger changes that, and that America renounces this type of discrimination, as it has so many others.

Around the Web

Perry v. Schwarzenegger - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

ACLU of Northern California : Perry v. Schwarzenegger

Perry v. Schwarzenegger: News Desk : The New Yorker

Perry v. Schwarzenegger - Case Profile | American Civil Liberties ...