Monday, June 16, 2008

Here comes the county clerk-recorder

It was time to introduce John to his friends and political supporters. Most of his colleagues had an idea Stephen Weir was gay, but the longtime public servant had kept his sexual preference secret. He felt strongly enough about his boyfriend of one month to introduce him to a former Concord city councilwoman at a small Halloween party. It was an intimate gathering of his closest friends and political allies, a subtle introduction to Weir's hidden lifestyle. Yet it was a bold move for the former Concord mayor to profess his love for a man.

It was 1990, a year after the Rev. Lloyd Mashore had successfully campaigned to repeal Concord's AIDS anti-discrimination ordinance, leading a vocal anti-gay movement in the central Contra Costa city. The following year, voters would repeal a human rights ordinance, in part because it covered gays.

It wasn't an easy time to be out in the East Bay city, let alone openly homosexual months after being named Contra Costa County clerk-recorder.

So when partner John Hemm showed up at his door wearing cherry-red stiletto heels and dressed as Marilyn Monroe in a low-cut "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" gown, Weir knew he was at a crossroads, and it wouldn't be a subtle one.

"He was just a knockout," Weir said, drifting off. "I was moderately mortified though."

After the initial trepidation, Weir escorted John to the party.

"It was kind of my stepping over the line," he said. "I realized at that point if Advertisementwe were a couple there was no hiding that.

"I was 40. It was time."

Now 59, Weir says it's time to legalize their love.

On Tuesday, Weir will marry his longtime companion in the shadow of the office he runs. As county clerk, Weir will oversee the historic introduction of same-sex marriages in Contra Costa after exercising his executive privilege to get hitched first.

"I'm grateful to have a chance to have the authority to deal with something that affects me so personally," said Weir, who has spent almost two decades enforcing the state's opposite-sex-only marriage laws, despite his personal views.

On May 15, the California Supreme Court struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage. The next day, Weir and Hemm began a month of frenzied wedding planning, and allowed the Times to follow.

A week before the big day, the couple invited a reporter and photographer into their neatly landscaped, single-story Concord home. A "Welcome" sign with an American flag hanging beneath greets visitors at the door, as do barking Precious and Prince, their two miniature longhaired dachshunds. Prince is partial to women — "the straightest guy in Contra Costa County," Hemm cracks.

In the front room, the black velvet, aubergine ribbon, fishtail gown Hemm has been sewing for a San Francisco drag queen drapes around a pincushion mannequin.

Hemm, 53, designs costumes for youth and community theater when he's not a crossing guard at Concord's Glenbrook Middle School. Display cases showcase Hemm's countless Marilyn Monroe dolls, including a phone doll straddling a subway vent. When the phone rings, her dress wafts up.

In the garage sits the couple's prized champagne 1966 Cadillac convertible, which registers about 1,000 miles a year, mostly to romantic Ocean Beach getaways.

The pair have three free hours to talk before "Jeopardy!" begins. Then they must report to their respective lounge chairs, dogs in laps, to watch their favorite game show. They're already married in many ways, the couple and friends say.

As Weir details the wedding plans, Hemm busies himself painting one of their two plastic grooms' hair blond, like his own platinum coif. They will top the wedding cake. He stops momentarily to belt out "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" in his best Marilyn voice.

These are happy days in the Weir-Hemm house.

Although historic, their pending marriage is above all else a love story.

The couple met in 1980 when Weir joined a San Francisco gym. Weir, "pretty closeted" at that time, walked into the gym and Hemm, talking with friends, did a quick double take.

"I thought, 'God, he's handsome,'" Hemm said. "And then I jokingly said, 'Yeah, this one's mine.'"

"I was petrified," Weir quickly added.

The couple dated for a few months. There were sparks, but both say they were not ready for more. They had one final dinner at the Cliff House in San Francisco.

"I remember looking down at the carpet when we were talking and I thought, 'Gosh, this is ending,'" Hemm said.

Almost a decade later, Hemm was reminded of Weir and found his phone number. The two returned again to the Cliff House.

Weir arrived nervous. He ducked into the restroom to comb his hair and preen before the encounter, and, sure enough, Hemm was there.

"We looked at each other and laughed. He stopped combing his hair and we had a 21/2 hour dinner together," Hemm said. The date ended with Weir sheepishly asking for a good-night kiss.

"From that moment on, it was set. I'd let him go away before, but mostly because I was worried about my public life, but it was time to focus on my personal life," said Weir, who plans to return to the Cliff House tonight to propose.

Life was splendid until 1995, when Hemm, who along with Weir loves the outdoors, became winded during a hike. The exhaustion grew into a persistent illness.

"The nurse told me I had pneumonia and I told her, 'No, I have lunch reservations at 1,'" Hemm said.

Doctors performed more tests and the diagnosis got worse — he was HIV-positive.

As they left the Concord hospital they stopped to hug in the hallway.

"I thought that was it," Weir said, holding back tears, as Hemm caressed his pant leg with a finger.

Shortly after the diagnosis, Weir gave Hemm a two-carat diamond ring. Now, every special occasion includes jewelry. Weir admits there may have been some "overcompensation" since no ring could signify a legal marriage.

Hemm survived two bouts of pneumonia and several rounds of chemotherapy to overcome two outbreaks of Kaposi's sarcoma. In the past five years side effects of his HIV drugs damaged his hips and knees, forcing the former stage dancer to get titanium replacement parts. His surgeon is giving him away at the wedding.

These days, Hemm tires easily — he had to skip his bridal shower — but is in good health.

One of Weir's aides, Debi Cooper, plans to throw Hemm a belated bridal shower.

The participants bought the bicycling enthusiasts cycling jerseys. Weir's white top has hot-pink flowers running down the side with "Bride: Party B" embroidered across the chest; Hemm's dark charcoal jersey is similar to a tuxedo, with "Groom: Party A" stenciled across the front. The new marriage license forms include "Party A" and "Party B" instead of "bride" and "groom."

As the couple shared stories and tidbits about their wedding plans, Weir feverishly added to a growing to-do list, shaking his head in disbelief.

He has pre-wedding jitters.

"I'm glad to have those feelings. I've never anticipated it, but I've seen it in others," said Weir. "And you know what, I'm kind of enjoying it."

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