With the ongoing fracas over marriage equality, it’s easy to overlook the fact that it’s been less than three decades since same-sex couples gained the right to register as domestic partners and access limited resources for their families. Even that was a significant and hard-won step, as James Chambers’ documentary "Citizen Change" details.
The first domestic partnerships didn’t take place in San Francisco (the measure was vetoed by then-mayor Dianne Feinstein under pressure from the Catholic Church), but rather in Berkeley, in 1984, after Tom Brougham and Barry Warren pressed the matter with Brougham’s employer, the University of California Berkeley. Brougham’s message was simple: Since marriage was denied to himself and his long-time life partner, he wanted some means by which to secure health coverage for Warren.
What followed was a game of political hot potato, but eventually insurance companies and city councils got on board with the idea--and an international firestorm erupted. Tellingly, neither domestic partnership (nor marriage equality, in the places where it is now allowed) caused the collapse of Western Civilization, but the anti-gay rhetoric, and the civil rights struggle by gay and lesbian families, continues.
The film adopts the approach of allowing the people who were there do the talking. This includes Brougham and Warren, as well as then-student leaders at UC Berkeley and members of what was, at the time, known as the East Bay Lesbian/Gay Democratic Club. These pioneers for family equality speak movingly about what it was like to be gay and lesbian at a time when just being gay was considered criminal, pathological, or both.
Though our rights remain under siege in 2012, it’s instructive, and uplifting, to look back three decades and see how far the GLBT community has come, and how little we started with: Nothing more, really, than a passion for justice and legal parity.