Gay Marriage Clerk
Marcio Jose Sanchez  /  AP
Decorations depicting scenes of marriage are seen in the office of Contra Costa County Clerk Recorder Stephen Weir in Martinez, Calif., on Wednesday.
updated 5/31/2008 9:52:52 AM ET 2008-05-31T13:52:52

For 18 years, Stephen Weir has been in charge of the office that hands out marriage licenses in California's ninth-largest county. And for just as long, Weir has been unable to get a license himself because the love of his life is a man.

The irony did not escape him.

"Always the bridesmaid, never the bride," he quips with a rueful smile.

So Weir hopes the citizens of Contra Costa County understand if their clerk-recorder invokes executive privilege and opens up for business a little early on June 17, when same-sex couples may be able to legally wed in California.

He and his partner, John Hemm, want to be first at the counter that day. They plan to be the first to exchange vows and kisses in the conference room Weir converted into a wedding chapel that hosts 1,200 couples a year, but that he could never use.

"I've waited all of this time to be able to walk into my own office and stand in line and pay what used to be $64 and now is $85 to buy a license and have a ceremony," says Weir, who also is president of the state clerks association.

"It's a big deal."

Precarious line
To understand how exceptional it is for the 59-year-old Weir to bring his personal needs into his professional life, it's helpful to know what a precarious line he's had to tread during 35 years in city, state and county politics.

He spent nine years on the Concord City Council, two of them as mayor, but took pains to keep his sexual orientation a secret. Concerned he would be outed as gay in the high-profile position, he sought the county clerkship as "a safer place for me" when the longtime clerk died.

Within months of assuming the job, he had to oversee in his dual capacity as registrar of voters the counting of local ballots cast for a March 2000 initiative that strengthened California's ban on gay marriage.

That same year, when Weir and Hemm were getting serious, he started taking Hemm to events where they would see other elected officials. If his colleagues thought differently about him afterward, they never let on, Weir says.

"I said to myself, 'If he and I are going to be a couple, there is no hiding this thing anymore,'" he says.

For the most part, though, shouldering the contradictions he encountered at work came easily for Weir, who has spent his whole life in Contra Costa, a suburban county that is conservative by San Francisco Bay area standards.

He is the consummate civil servant, the type of administrator who waxes poetic about document scanning software.

Awkward position
Fulfilling his oath to perform his duties faithfully and according to the law has put Weir in some awkward positions, however. Every Valentine's Day for the last five years or so, gay men and lesbians have gone to clerks' counters throughout the country to request marriage licenses in a coordinated act of protest.

Every year, Weir has turned away those who showed up on his turf with a polite apology and a referral to the state government Web site where they could learn about registering as domestic partners, a step he and Hemm took in 2003.

In the meantime, Weir has officiated at about 20 weddings, mostly for friends and relatives but occasionally for couples who come to the clerk's office.

Two years ago, as Valentine's Day was approaching, some of his fellow clerks wanted their state association to put out a statement supporting a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. It fell to Weir, the group's president, to remind them that their bylaws prohibited taking stands on legislation.

"People were respectful, but I know it was hard because they were trying to give me the legal rights I was seeking," he says.

Weir looks the same way at his role in a pending ballot initiative that would again make gay marriage illegal. County clerks are responsible for verifying the signatures its sponsors have gathered to qualify the measure for the November ballot. He has stacks of petitions in his building right now and a roomful of employees going through them.

"We are doing that in an honorable way. We are discharging our duties as clerk. I didn't ever think of it as anything other than a petition in the queue. I can't let it," he says.

Comic foil
If voters pass the amendment, it would overturn the California Supreme Court's May 15 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in the state. It could also, depending on the outcome of further legal proceedings, invalidate the marriages performed between now and then, including Weir and Hemm's.

That's a possibility that Weir, who will be busy on Nov. 4 making sure his county's ballots are processed swiftly and accurately during the high turnout presidential election, can't even contemplate.

"Only after I get that election to bed will I even begin to think about the issues I'm concerned with personally," he says.

At home in Concord, Weir plays the comic foil to the more outgoing Hemm, 53, who works as a school crossing guard and costume designer. Like most long-term couples, they finish each other's sentences and happily share the story of how they met in a San Francisco gym, drifted apart, and then reconnected after nine years.

Elderly neighbors brought them cookies when they moved in to their 1950s-era ranch house and watch their pets when they are away.

"If you are honest and yourself, there is no reason to feel like you are out of line," Hemm says. "If you don't carry that with you, you don't see it in other people."

Getting married would be the icing on the proverbial wedding cake, the men say, something they hoped would happen in their lifetimes, but the absence of which they did not let diminish the delight they take in each other.

One happy byproduct is that Weir should be able to get Hemm on his long-term health plan. They already have stood by each other in sickness and in health: Hemm has AIDS.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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