McCusker was employed at the local post office in the famed Southern California gayborhood, which had recently become incorporated as a city just months before. But after McCusker’s shift ended, they waited in line at the newly opened City Hall and settled for eighth place, clocking in at 3:55pm.
There was little pomp and circumstance to the event, MacDougall said. There was no Justice of the Peace, and most of the couples showed up in their work clothes. The certificate they received, which sat near the phone as he rifled through faded memories, was just a “plain piece of document [with] no calligraphy.”
“We didn't really even have vows,” MacDougall recalled. “It was nice to get that official stamp, but there really was no ceremony, per se. You just agreed to what you were signing, and that was it.”
Befitting that lack of fanfare, West Hollywood will quietly mark another milestone later this month. March 25 will ring in the 35th anniversary of West Hollywood’s domestic partnership ordinance, which marked the first time anywhere in the world that same-sex partners could publicly apply for legal recognition.
While Berkeley passed a domestic partnership law months earlier, it applied only to city employees for the purposes of insurance benefits. By contrast, any couple could register as domestic partners in West Hollywood—even straight people.
Lillian Faderman, the leading LGBTQ historian and co-author of the book Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, said the inclusivity of the new domestic partnerships was by design. With a population of around 37,000 people, the city was largely populated by LGBTQ people (who made around 30 percent of residents) and Jewish seniors, many of whom “were living together and did not want to get married.”
“In many cases, they had children and they didn't want to mess with their wills and didn't want to remarry again,” Faderman said, “but they did want to live together.”
Domestic partnerships were largely a symbolic gesture with few tangible benefits, but they counted in key ways. If a same-sex couple was living in a rent-controlled apartment together and one of them suddenly died, their partner could potentially lose that fixed rate and be charged hundreds more in rent by their landlord—or even be evicted. “You were able to say, ‘We have a legal tie and you can't kick me out of this apartment,’” Faderman explained.
Before same-sex couples were able to receive relationship recognition from the state or the federal government, they were often forced to exploit legal loopholes to ensure they were bonded together. One such option was adult adoptions—provided there was at least a 10-year age difference between partners.
“West Hollywood was really pioneering in that they realized that gay couples had to have legal ties and did it through domestic partnership,” Faderman said.
It would be nearly two decades before Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage following a May 2004 ruling from its Supreme Court, and three decades before the U.S. Supreme Court made it legal in all 50 states. But even at the time, couples in West Hollywood looked at domestic partnerships as an important first step toward greater recognition.
“It was like the first step on a ladder,” said Barbara Stevens, who was 18th in line along with her partner, Kathy Olson. “We knew there was going to be greater acceptance. We might not see it in our lifetime, but we knew.”
Stevens said that one of the things that inspired the couple to make a public declaration of their love was knowing that other people weren’t able to do the same. Even before the AIDS epidemic swept the nation, 1985 was not an easy time to be LGBTQ in America. California had only repealed its sodomy law nine years earlier, and gay sex was still illegal in the majority of U.S states.
Many LGBTQ people remained in the closet in fear of being arrested and persecuted or losing their jobs. Just eight states protected workers on the basis of sexual orientation, and none had gender identity protections in place.
“It was really bad at the time,” Stevens said. “And I thought, ‘People need to just step up to the plate.’”
That’s why Stevens and Olson had a second ceremony later that year. It was held on Pearl Harbor Day at the Metropolitan Community Church in North Hollywood, where the pair had met at a Halloween dance three years earlier.
Stevens remembered that the church had already been decorated for Christmas at the time, and they walked down the aisle in a shower of garland and recently unboxed wreaths. Stevens’ sister was the maid of honor, and her brother was the gift attendant.
“I wanted to have a beautiful ceremony with someone to love the rest of my life,” she said. “My sister had gotten married two years or three years earlier, and I thought, "You know what? I'm entitled to that! Why not? Everybody loves a good party.’”
But even as the domestic partnership ordinance in West Hollywood represented incremental progress for same-sex couples, many of the couples who helped make history on March 25, 1985, wouldn’t live to see full nationwide marriage equality together.
Olson passed away in 2004 following a battle with alcoholism, and McCusker lost a years-long battle with HIV in June 2013, just two weeks before the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.
The repeal of DOMA, a 1996 law signed by President Bill Clinton that banned same-sex marriages at the federal level, was widely seen as paving the way for the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges two years later. It should have been a joyous moment, but MacDougall said he had “mixed emotions.”
“We knew that it was going to the Supreme Court and yet Peter's mind in the six months before that was deteriorating rapidly,” he said. “He had extreme Alzheimer’s. I thought, ‘Even if it passed today, I don't know if he would even be able to fully acknowledge and recognize the marriage that we had.’ That whole period, it was a bit of a nightmare. We had fought for so long, and we were getting so close.”
Kevin Keating and Phillip Large, who have been together for four decades, are one of the few surviving couples to have received a domestic partnership in the early days of West Hollywood’s ordinance.
The two met through mutual friends during a weekend trip to Daytona Beach. While Keating said it “wasn’t love at first sight,” there was something “different” about Large that made him curious to find out more. He liked, for instance, that Large wanted to settle down and raise a family with someone, which many gay men of the time didn’t believe was an option for them.
“I had never even heard of a long-term gay couple,” Keating said. “There was no Will and Grace then or anything. It's hard sometimes to think about if you were growing up today how different things are and how much the world has changed for gay people.”
The two dated for a year and a half before deciding it was time to have a commitment ceremony. They would do it all over again twice: once in West Hollywood in 1985 and a second time in 2008 during the brief window where California legalized marriage for same-sex couples before the passage of Proposition 8 (which was itself overturned in federal court). Their third and final ceremony took place at the top of the Aerial Tramway in Palm Springs, exchanging rings in a small reception area overlooking the sand-colored Coachella Valley.
That day Keating’s nieces and nephews, who had grown up with them as a couple, confessed they didn’t know they weren’t already married. “We've always considered ourselves a married couple,” he said, “whether or not the law was cognizant of that.”
Having watched the marriage equality movement grow over 35 years from a handful of couples signing a piece of paper in West Hollywood City Hall to what will be the fifth anniversary of the freedom to marry later this year, Keating said it feels “like the rest of the world has caught up to how we felt 40 years ago.”
“We've always been out and open about our relationship and lots of other people have been, too,” he said. “I think parades are good and changing laws is good, but I think the biggest difference in changing people's minds is that so many gay people came out—to their families, their friends, and at work, all over the country. I feel that we've been a part of changing the world so that the kids when they meet, they can see a future together, if that's what they want.”