At the heart of MEUSA lie a handful of founding volunteers who have navigated the bumpy ride that has been the marriage equality movement for over a decade. John Lewis, MEUSA’s Legal and Policy Director, is one such MEUSA volunteer.
Molly McKay Williams, the former Executive Director of Marriage Equality California, and the woman who first recruited John and his husband Stuart as spokespeople and leaders for the marriage equality movement back in 2004, says, "Part of the joy of this work is doing it with people you love and admire. I love and admire John for his generous spirit; his deep, searching, introspective personality; and his great sense of humor. Our experiences in this movement, the highs and the lows, will be some of my most treasured life experiences."
With the United States Supreme Court’s recent historic, nationwide, marriage equality decision, John considers the two Amicus (friend of the court) briefs* he filed on behalf of MEUSA in the 2013 and 2015 Supreme Court cases to be highlights of his last few years with the organization. “Creating and filing these briefs was so rewarding because we applied MEUSA’s mission to empower people to tell their own stories and advocate in their own voices to the appellate legal setting, which is often detached from authentic human experience. In our briefs, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans and their families spoke directly to the Justices and expressed in their own words why the liberty and equality guarantees of the Constitution should apply to us. We used these voices to make the legal argument for marriage equality. We were gratified when Justice Kennedy in both his 2013 and 2015 opinions wrote in very human terms about the importance of equality under the law,” says John.
John also considers moderating the MEUSA National Community Calls a highlight of his MEUSA involvement in recent years. “I’ve greatly enjoyed moderating the community calls that MEUSA has hosted after every appellate marriage equality hearing over the last few years. We always invite attorneys and activists from the states involved to participate. We have a robust and lively conversation with lots of questions and back and forth. I am always impressed with the level of commitment and insight that so many of the people who call in have.”
David B. Cruz, Professor of Law at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, and a legal expert who participated on several MEUSA National Community Calls, noted, "John’s contributions as moderator for MEUSA’s community calls have been invaluable. He displays a knack for posing questions in ways that go to the core of the issues, prompt speakers to give answers both accessible and precise, and help the country better understand the extraordinary developments MEUSA has been chronicling. His ability to contribute substantive information to those calls boosts his great value to the organization."
John and his husband, Stuart Gaffney, became involved in the movement when San Francisco started granting marriage licenses a full, three months before Massachusetts became the first state to usher in marriage equality on a permanent basis. “We began working with Marriage Equality USA through Marriage Equality California on February 12, 2004, the day we showed up for a rally to support marriage equality and arrived at the steps of San Francisco City Hall the very first hour that San Francisco opened the door to all loving, committed couples to marry. Because we showed up to get involved, we were one of the first ten couples of over 4,000 that married in San Francisco during San Francisco's so-called ‘Winter of Love.’ We've been working with Marriage Equality USA ever since,” says John.
“However, our marriage and those of over 4,000 other couples were taken away six months later when the California Supreme Court ruled that San Francisco could not issue the licenses on its own. We then joined the ongoing lawsuit with other couples and the City of San Francisco, arguing that California's ban on marriage for same-sex couples violated the state constitution. In May, 2008, we all won a tremendous victory and Stuart and I and an estimated 18,000 same-sex couples married in California before Proposition 8 passed in November 2008.”
It was their first marriage ceremony, the one that would later be invalidated, that propelled the couple to advocacy. “On February 12, 2004, when we heard the words ‘by virtue of the authority vested in me by the State of California, I pronounce you spouses for life,’ we felt something transform within us,” John says. “We felt for the first time in our lives our government treating us as equal human beings as LGBT people. That experience changed everything for us. We realized that we had always thought that somehow as LGBT people we would always be treated as not quite equal. At that moment, we committed to doing everything in our power to make the dignity that comes with our government treating us as fully equal human beings a lasting reality for LGBTQ people.”
“Although that marriage was taken away from us,” John says, “there was no turning back. And that's where Marriage Equality USA came in. We joined thousands of others working with the organization because the organization's mission was to enable people directly affected by marriage discrimination to advocate in their own voices as they best see fit why equality is crucial. We have immensely enjoyed lending our voice and helping others tell their stories and share their voices with the world.”
Like many same-gender couples who married immediately upon legalization, John and Stuart had already lived nearly two decades as a married couple in every sense of the term — other than legal recognition. “We met 28 years ago and,” says, John, “from the day we met, we always wanted a lasting, committed relationship. But back then, marriage appeared as something that we as LGBTQ people would never have access to. Marriage would always be for someone else, and we would always be in the audience attending someone else's wedding.”
John’s sense of the injustices perpetrated by lack of legal recognition of same gender marriages grew steadily over time. “As the years went by together, we became increasingly aware of the many legal protections that come with marriage and we became increasingly upset that we were deprived of these. We asked, ‘why would we not have spousal social security benefits upon retirement? Why are we paying thousands of dollars more in taxes just because we were gay?’ We were encouraged by, and took part in, various domestic partner benefits that became available. But then we realized that full marriage equality was something that rightfully belonged to LGBTQ people.”
John’s MEUSA volunteer activities have extended far beyond the legal and policy realms to include core, “press-the-flesh” events for the public. Among the most memorable, according to John, was the 2004 National Marriage Equality Express Caravan from coast to coast -- San Francisco to Washington DC. “We and other activists shared our personal stories in places like Cheyenne, Wyoming, Indianapolis, Indiana, and Columbus, Ohio, culminating with a national rally at the U.S. Capitol. “It was a wonderful experience to connect to LGBT communities all across the country and to help educate the public in places that had little familiarity with marriage equality.”
The “Decline to Sign Campaign,” to try to prevent Prop. 8 from going on the 2008 California ballot, was another activity that stands out in John’s memory. “We, and many other courageous, LGBTQ people, stood aside paid signature gatherers in the Central Valley of California to tell Californians about our lives and to explain to them why they should not support an initiative measure that would take away the freedom of LGBTQ people to marry in California. Although Prop. 8 made the ballot and passed, I am very proud of how Marriage Equality USA volunteers skillfully stood up for the lives of LGBTQ people under sometimes very hostile conditions. Marriage Equality USA volunteers were a paragon of nonviolent strength and resistance.”
John’s advocacy work has also extended beyond US borders. He says, “Partnering with Asian Pacific Island Equality and the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance, we created the first ever marriage equality floats in the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade. As my husband Stuart is mixed race Chinese American, we were honored to present our lives along with the lives of other members of the LGBT API community to the world through the parade, which is broadcast worldwide, especially in Asia. The collaboration, skill and sensitivity that API Equality, GAPA, and Marriage Equality USA brought to this project was exemplary.”
Over the last two years, John (along with Stuart) has taken MEUSA's message to Japan. “We presented the organization's work at universities and at meetings with Japanese LGBTQ leaders, with whom we are now collaborating. We also participated in historic marriage equality events as representatives of Marriage Equality USA at Pink Dot Okinawa.”
Pondering what comes next in the marriage equality movement, now that we have a favorable Supreme Court decision, John says, “We have always considered the movement for marriage equality as one integral component of the movement for full LGBTQ equality in all aspects of our lives. We know we will continue to work for full LGBTQ equality. We also feel strongly that we should not consider our marriage equality efforts complete upon winning equality in the United States. The LGBTQ movement is a worldwide movement and we look forward to the possibility of working with LGBTQ advocates in other countries establishing marriage equality in many other places around the globe.”
With just under 10% of the nations in the world now embracing marriage equality, the notion of worldwide marriage equality might appear, at first glance, almost as far-fetched as the idea marriage equality in California seemed a short, 10-years ago. Yet, if John finds the possibility of worldwide marriage equality seemingly, dauntingly improbable, he does not show it.
#1 March 2015, John Lewis crafting the MEUSA Obergefell Amicus Brief, taken by Stuart Gaffney. From MEUSA News Blog post, MEUSA Amicus Brief: Real Voices, Real People, Real Impact, by John Lewis, 9 March 2015.
#2 Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis, Winter of Love marriage at San Francisco City Hall, 12 February 2004, from Gaffney/Lewis private collection.
#3 Molly McKay, Davina Kotulski, John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, MECA Marriage Equality Express Caravan. Photo by Mike Kepka, The San Francisco Chronicle, 15 October 2004.
#4 Image of No on 8 sign, MEUSA archives.
#5 John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney at Pink Dot Pride in Okinawa, from MEUSA News Blog post Love Around the World, by Stuart Gaffney, 7 August 2014.
Imagine living as an LGBT person in a country of over 120 million people where sexual expression between people of the same gender has essentially never been criminalized, where no conservative Christian political movement exists, and where violent crime is so low that gun ownership is less than one percent that of the United States.
That country is Japan. For the last two years, we have had the honor of being invited to Japan to give public talks, participate in symposiums, and teach classes about the movement for marriage equality in the United States. We have also met with numerous LGBT leaders across the country to share our experiences, compare conditions for LGBT people in our two countries, and to talk about strategies for achieving full equality.
We received the invitation to speak in Japan from a heterosexual Japanese professor of Asian American studies who heard us give a presentation in the United States. This professor has a three year old child and realized that her child could turn out to be LGBT, and that LGBT equality was not just an issue for which she could be an ally, but was her issue, too. She wanted her child to be able to grow up in a world where he could be free to be who he was without hiding and without facing discrimination.
Japanese society’s relative lack of public hostility to LGBT people appears to be a double-edged sword to Japanese LGBT people’s living their lives openly with full equality. Less adversity can reduce the sense of urgency to enact laws to protect LGBT people. Harmony is one of the most important societal values in Japan, and many Japanese LGBT people told us that coming out is particularly difficult in Japan, largely due to pressure to conform and to social expectations. Although Japanese LGBT people benefit greatly from the low risk of physical violence, many appear to fear losing their jobs if they come out.
The issue of marriage equality is particularly complex in Japan. For many, Japan’s marriage law seems to be outdated, not just from its exclusion of LGBT couples, but as it applies to heterosexual couples. For example, Japanese marriage law requires one of the spouses (in practice, nearly always the woman) to change her name and taxes a second spouse’s income so severely that many spouses have no financial incentive to pursue a career. Japanese LGBT activists are developing a partnership law open to all couples that remedies these limitations and serves the needs of modern couples – as they work for marriage equality as well.
Using marriage equality as a barometer of public attitudes on LGBT equality, recent polling revealed that 70 percent of Japanese in their 20s and 30s support marriage equality. Although support among the population as a whole is not as high as in some industrialized nations, 40 percent of Japanese are still undecided on the issue, and those who have made up their mind overwhelmingly support equality. We believe that the future for LGBT people in Japan is bright.
By MEUSA Legal and Policy Director John Lewis and MEUSA Communications Director Stuart Gaffney
On our recent trip to Japan to speak on LGBTQ rights for Marriage Equality USA, we had the honor of addressing the crowd at Pink Dot Okinawa, a wonderful event with over 1,000 attendees who were treated to music, dance, speeches, and a beautiful marriage ceremony for Kazuki and Harold -- when the happy couple exchanged vows there was not a dry eye in the crowd.
Kazuki is from Okinawa, while Harold is American -- because they met during the days of DOMA they had to go into exile in order to be together. Luckily they were able to find work, live and marry in Canada. During that time, Kazuki's family back in Japan was not accepting of their relationship, but over the years their love has prevailed. An emotional highlight of Pink Dot Okinawa was the reading of a touching letter written by Kazuki's mother to celebrate the love of her son and son-in-law and to express her wishes for their happiness as a married couple.
Amazing events don't happen by themselves, and Pink Dot Okinawa is no exception -- it is the brainchild of Hideki Sunagawa, an activist and HIV/AIDS community worker for over a quarter century and one of the founders of Tokyo Pride. Hideki is also an academic with a PhD in cultural anthropology, and he brings that wisdom to his activism. In Hideki's own words:
"Though at this point in time Japan provides no legal recognition or protection for same-sex couples, we have reached a point where more and more same-sex couples are holding ceremonies like their heterosexual counterparts. Many gays and lesbians have been encouraged by these open and public celebrations of love and devotion, and as a result feel far more hopeful about building a future with their partners. ...the truth is that in Japan, most LGBTQ people with life partners do not or feel as if they cannot introduce them to their families. As such, I’ve come to think that by holding a public ceremony here in Kazuki’ s birthplace of Okinawa, we may be able to provide some hope for both those in the audience and Okinawa’ s local LGBTQ community in general. ... it is our belief that this event will not only allow the people of Okinawa to put faces to the idea of a same-sex couple, but also help to lay a groundwork for other such ceremonies throughout Japan."
This dream became a reality at Pink Dot Okinawa 2014 because of Hideki and an amazing team of hard-working and fun-loving volunteers who created a loving space in the central square of Naha, Okinawa. There are too many wonderful people we met there to name everyone individually, but we were inspired by the tireless efforts of Norito Irei who was with us from beginning to end, even introduced us to Okinawan cuisine, and then joined us for a presentation the following day at Okinawa University where he spoke movingly about his own experience growing up gay in Okinawa and what it’s like coming out there and in the United States.
Pink Dot started in Singapore and now includes events for LGBTQ acceptance around the world in places as diverse as Hong Kong, Kaohsiung, Montreal, and Salt Lake City. Our trip to Japan and the experience of Pink Dot Okinawa has filled us with hope in the power of love to create change around the world.
By MEUSA National Media Director Stuart Gaffney and MEUSA Director of Legal & Policy John Lewis
Twice in our lives, we’ve quit our jobs and travelled around the world for a year with whatever we could carry on our backs. So we love this year’s parade theme: Color Our World with Pride. After San Francisco Pride, we will be headed to Okinawa, Japan, to participate in the Pink Dot Okinawa pride events and speak at the very first Okinawa marriage equality rally, to be held in the center of the island’s largest city.
In Japan, we will also continue our collaboration with Japanese LGBT activists in Tokyo and Osaka. Recently, Akie Abe, the Japanese First Lady, rode in the Tokyo Pride Parade accompanied by a fabulous drag queen, and proclaimed: “I want to help build a society where anyone can lead happy, contented lives without facing discrimination.”
Across two oceans, Luxembourg Pride will celebrate the tiny country’s giant news that earlier this month it became the 19th country with marriage equality. The fact that Luxembourg’s openly gay Prime Minister Xavier Battel will implement the law makes the landslide 56-4 vote in the Chamber of Deputies all the sweeter. And as soccer fans around the globe follow the World Cup this summer, we take pride that the host country Brazil, a nation of 200 million people, boasts marriage equality. Indeed, last December the Rio de Janeiro Superior Court of Justice conducted the world’s largest LGBT wedding ever, in which 130 couples tied the knot.
However, in other parts of the world, LGBT people are marching for their basic human rights and freedom. In India, Mumbai’s Pride Parade this February drew a record crowd gathering to protest the Indian Supreme Court’s upholding “Section 377,” a British colonial era law that criminalized sexual activity of LGBT people. The Indian Supreme Court’s decision has galvanized many Indian LGBT people and allies to stand up and fight back. In a rare move, the Indian Supreme Court has agreed to rehear the case.
Sadly, there will be no pride parades this summer in many parts of the globe where LGBT people are struggling simply to survive. In nine countries, LGBT sexual activity is punishable by death. One image that remains emblazoned on our minds is a 2010 photograph of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, who were arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison in the East African nation of Malawi for being gay and announcing their engagement to be married. The photo shows Steven and Tiwonge—alone and handcuffed together in the back of pick-up truck—being hauled off to jail, surrounded by a mocking and jeering crowd. We will hold their image in our minds as we ride down Market Street, celebrating the one-year anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s overturning DOMA and Prop 8, this past year’s historic string of marriage equality victories, and the wonderful degree of freedom we have attained in San Francisco.
We must create global collaboration and community to truly color the world with rainbow pride. Perhaps no country speaks better of the potential of such collaboration than South Africa. In 2006, South Africa became the fifth country in the world to gain marriage equality—before every other state in the United States except Massachusetts—thanks to specific sexual orientation protection in their constitution. Two years ago, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg praised the South African Constitution—a true product of international collaboration—as “a fundamental instrument of government that embrace(s) basic human rights,” and calling it “a great piece of work that was done.” This year’s Pride celebrations remind us that we have much more great work to do together.
By MEUSA National Media Director Stuart Gaffney and MEUSA Director of Legal & Policy John Lewis
This article originally appeared in SF Bay Times, June 26, 2014: http://sfbaytimes.com/color-our-world-with-rainbow-pride/ A photo of Gaffney and Lewis also served as the cover for that issue.
As we commemorate the 35th anniversary of the assassination of Harvey Milk, our recent trip to Japan to speak about marriage equality made clear how Harvey’s call to come out is just as important as ever.
Significantly fewer LGBT Japanese have come out than their American counterparts, and LGBT Japanese are a much less visible part of society and the media than in the U.S. The Japanese people we met gave us insight into how coming out in Japan is similar to, and different from, America.
One Japanese activist told us that he came out to his parents in high school after his first date with a boy, because he did not want to keep a secret within himself and wanted his parents to know him as he really was. His parents were very accepting. But another activist described how 20 years ago, his father and brother beat him when he came out and threw him out of the house. He found his way to the office of a Tokyo LGBT activist organization that let him sleep on their floor until he could get on his feet. He has now worked for that organization for over 10 years and is a leading advocate for people with HIV/AIDS in Japan.
We met a bisexual student who wants to design LGBT manga cartoons to support the movement, but was afraid to come out to her father. We encouraged her to come out if it was safe, so that she could lead a life that was true to who she was and contribute her creativity and talent to help others.
Coming out appears to be particularly difficult for many Japanese LGBT people because of the importance of social conformity in Japan. Many college students told us that they had known perhaps only one openly LGBT person in their entire lives. We were the first openly LGBT people some had ever met. Activists told us that the pressure for conformity can lead to greater internalized homophobia, and that coming out can lead to significant social isolation and loneliness.
However, our speaking about Harvey Milk’s call to come out – both for one’s personal well being and for the benefit of the movement – seemed to resonate everywhere we went. Activists believed that more Japanese LGBT people coming out was critical to advancing legal, social, and political change, including marriage equality.
After hearing our marriage and coming-out stories, one student decided it was time for him to come out, too — but not as LGBT (he was straight) but as a Japanese person of Korean ethnicity, a group that faces significant discrimination. When he came out as Korean-Japanese and told his personal story of exclusion and discrimination, he received enormous support from his classmates. In so doing, we hope he made his own life better and, at the same time, took an important step to help the movement for human dignity and equality for all – an act with which we believe Harvey would have been very pleased.
By MEUSA National Media Director Stuart Gaffney and MEUSA Director of Legal & Policy John Lewis
This article originally appeared in SF Bay Times, November 28, 2013: http://sfbaytimes.com/coming-out-for-marriage-equality-in-japan/