John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney have been speaking out in our community and have made headlines in local, national, and international news throughout the marriage equality movement. Together now for 24 years, they were two of the plaintiffs in the historic 2008 lawsuit that held that California’s ban on same-sex marriage violated the state constitution. Stuart is a Policy Analyst at the UCSF Center for AIDS Prevention Studies. John practices law and is a graduate of Stanford Law School.
In the month since our dinner date with John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, a lot has changed for gay rights in the United States, and this unassuming couple has been in the middle of it all. On Valentine’s Day,while the rest of us were either on romantic dinner dates or feeling sorry for ourselves for being single, John and Stuart spent their day demonstrating for equality and requesting marriage certificates at City Hall. The following day, I ran into Stuart at a Castro neighborhood book reading, where he read his words on the topic of the marriage equality. Then last week, I walked past a newspaper stand on my way to work and did a double take when I saw John and Stuart’s faces on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle—the headline titled “Major Victory for Gay Rights”. The Obama administration had announced that it would not defend the ban on same-sex marriage.
It’s hard to keep up with these two activists who tirelessly attend every rally, protest, and trial for same-sex marriage. They are leaders in Marriage Equality USA, a national grassroots organization, and Asian Pacific Islander Equality, a coalition educating the Asian American community. After spending fifteen minutes with them, you can see how their welcoming disposition can win over the public. Give them thirty minutes, and you’ll catch their contagious passion for marriage equality and soon be committed to show up at every rally to also make an impact.
To add to their strengths, John and Stuart are also multi-faceted. When they came over for dinner, they centered the conversation on traveling and their experience of taking two round-the-world trips together. These mild mannered men enraptured us with stories of risk and some danger as they reminisce traveling on a shoe string throughout the developing world. Their first world trip in 1991 felt like the biggest step towards commitment. John says, “We spent every waking and sleeping moment together except for the half hour when I was looking for a doctor to treat Stuart for an eye infection. We realized that we were treating everything as one.” Stuart adds, “Then there was a romantic bus ride in India. We saw some rings outside a temple for about 15 cents and exchanged them on the bus. Chaos surrounded us and nobody in the world knew where we were. In our own private world, we made a lifetime commitment to one another.”
John and Stuart’s marriages in 2004 and 2008 were anything but private. In 2004, they were among the first to get married in San Francisco City Hall, and celebrated with the entire city. John says, “We were standing up for the truth of our lives. I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe that I am alive’ when I heard the words ‘by virtue of the authority vested in me by the State of California, I pronounce you spouses for life.’ I still get chills to this day. That changed everything for us as a community because we had an understanding of what it was like to be treated equally. As a successful grown man, I had no idea what I was still holding onto from the years of being told that I was ‘less than’ until there were no longer any barriers.”
Instead of leaving town on a honeymoon, they went to the ACLU offices and filed a declaration in support of the thousands of joyous weddings taking place. Six months later when those marriages were declared null and void, John and Stuart became plaintiffs in the California case for marriage equality. Stuart says, “We have the best argument. It’s a love story. They asked us who we were, how we met, and howlong we’ve been together. Our declaration was about love.” They found themselves traveling again. This time they toured on a bus across the country as part of the Marriage Equality Caravan to speak at educational forums in churches and universities, in small towns and big cities everywhere.
Stuart’s family history also uniquely added support their position. Fifty years earlier, Stuart’s mom, who is Chinese-American, married his Caucasian dad. “When my mom was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley a few years earlier, California law prohibited Chinese Americans from marrying Caucasians, just as California law today prohibits same-sex couples from marrying. She still remembers how one of her classmates at Berkeley had to leave the state to marry her white fiancé.” Fortunately and rightly, in 1948 the California Supreme Court overturned the state’s interracial marriage ban as unconstitutional. “Had the court not overturned that law, my parents may never have married, and I might not be here today,”says Stuart. However, Stuart’s parents’ found out their marriage was illegal and void after they married and moved from California to Missouri, where interracial marriages were still banned. They understood Stuart’s pain when his marriage to John was also declared null and void in 2004 by the courts.
Stuart and John have included their families in celebrating their marriages. In 2007, Stuart and John were Grand Marshals in the San Francisco Pride Parade, and they marched with their parents, family and friends. Stuart described preparing his parents to march down in the famous parade. “I remember telling my mom that the contingent in the parade that gets the most applause is always PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbian and Gays) because so many of those cheering have been rejected or unaccepted by their parents. My mother carried a heart-shaped sign that read ‘Mom.’ The touching emotion that came from the crowd overwhelmed her. She underestimated her impact as a supportive mother of a gay son.”John says, “as gay individuals, we all have a shared experience of coming out. When you publically get married, you have a second coming out as a couple and as a family. It was so special to do that with our families.”
When looking towards the future of the marriage equality movement, John says, “This movement is unique because we’ve now had taste of what it is like to be treated equal and get married. There is no turning back now.” With John and Stuart among the many leading this movement in California, we can look forward to the future.