My mother, who is Chinese American, was only able to marry my father, who is English and Irish American, because in 1948 the California Supreme Court became the first state supreme court in the nation to overturn a ban on interracial couples marrying. My mother still remembers the day when one of her friends in the Chinese Students Club at U.C. Berkeley had to leave the state to marry her white fiancée a few years before the Court’s decision. My mom's friend literally had to run from the law to marry the person she loved, simply because they were of different races.
In its historic 1948 decision, Perez v. Sharp, the California Supreme Court held that each citizen’s fundamental constitutional right to marry was really no right at all, unless it meant the freedom to “marry the person of one’s choice.” My parents married in the International House at Berkeley, the very same place they'd met. But as they moved to other states, they found that each state’s laws treated their marriage differently simply because of their races. While looking for a house in Missouri, they learned that Missouri law prohibited marriage between whites and “negroes” or “Mongolians,” the term then used for most Asian Americans.
When I was growing up, my parents didn't discuss these discriminatory laws over the dinner table. But it wasn’t until 1967 that the US Supreme Court overturned all such laws nationwide in the landmark Loving v. Virginia case. The court declared marriage is one of the “basic rights of man.”
My mother, John, and I flew to Washington, DC together as a family for events commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Loving decision. My mother spoke out at the Capitol for the rights of all loving couples to wed, including her own son and son-in-law. Mildred Loving, who brought the historic lawsuit before the United States Supreme Court, stated that “I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry.”
When John and I were able to legally marry in 2008, surrounded by our family and friends, it was a dream come true. As we exchanged vows and were pronounced spouses for life, we felt that for the first time in our lives that our government was treating us equally under the law, and treating our relationship with full dignity and respect. The day was so transformative that we have committed to do everything we can to secure the freedom to marry for all.
Having my mom and dad there beside us, witnessing the next generation in our family achieving marriage equality, was the best wedding gift of all. Marriage equality is a family tradition.
Stuart Gaffney is the MEUSA Communications Director, and his husband John Lewis is the MEUSA Director of Legal & Policy.
The photo displayed is from Stuart and John's legal wedding in June 2013, following the SOCTUS decision that upheld a lower court's ruling that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, thus renewing marriage equality in California. The couple is shown here with their respective parents in the rotunda of San Francisco City Hall.
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.
As the day draws near for the Supreme Court to issue its decision in the marriage equality cases, the urge to decipher any clue as to what the Court will decide heightens. A few weeks ago, the New York Times reported that as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently pronounced two gay men married “by the powers vested in her by the Constitution” at a swank D.C. wedding, she did it “[w]ith a sly look and special emphasis on the word ’Constitution.’” The newspaper also reported that the wedding guests’ wildly enthusiastic response seemed to have “delighted” the Justice. The New York Times’ speculation that Ginsburg’s intonation and reaction may be a “hint” of what the Supreme Court will decide set the news world abuzz.
The things the Justices said during the Supreme Court’s late April oral argument in the marriage equality cases have also been ripe for speculation. Several of the Justices upon whom we are relying asked questions or made statements that most observers have interpreted as favorable to marriage equality. For instance, Justice Kagan seemed to indicate that she believed the current cases were “exactly what” the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, Loving v. Virginia, that struck down all state bans on interracial couples marrying, was about. In Loving, the Court held that such marriage exclusions violate Americans’ fundamental right to marry and the guarantees of equality that the U.S. Constitution provides. Justice Kagan described how Loving showed that “liberty and … equality are intertwined ….”
Justice Breyer also observed that “marriage is about as basic a right as there is” and that the Constitution prohibits a state from “depriv[ing] a person of … basic liberty, without due process of law ….” He questioned opponents’ counsel as to same-sex couples’ argument that they have “no possibility to participate in that fundamental liberty” in states without the freedom to marry. Breyer further stated that opponents’ argument that upholding tradition justified states’ same-sex marriage exclusions was “the same way we talk[ed] about racial segregation” during the era of Loving. Justice Sotomayor seemed to agree, apparently rejecting opponents’ argument that LGBT Americans somehow seek a Constitutional right to “gay” marriage and understanding that same-sex couples simply assert their fundamental right to marry that the Constitution guarantees everyone else.
Justice Ginsburg said favorable things as well. She recognized how the evolution of marriage under the law from “a relationship of a dominant male to a subordinate female” to an “egalitarian” institution made it something that same-sex couples would seek to participate in. She also seemed to reject opponents’ argument that same-sex couples’ marrying would somehow harm heterosexuals’ marriages, noting that the freedom to marry for same-sex couples would not “tak[e] away anything from heterosexual couples.” Justice Kagan appeared skeptical of similar arguments from opponents, noting that some people find it “hard to see how permitting same-sex marriage discourages people from being bonded with their biological children." Justice Breyer asked opponents’ attorney for “empirical” evidence of such a connection, none of which was availing. Soon thereafter, Justice Kagan told opponents’ counsel that he found his reasoning “inexplicable.”
Much attention focuses on Justice Kennedy, who is considered the “swing” vote on the Court in many cases and has written all three of the Court’s landmark LGBT rights cases. Kennedy said relatively little during the argument but asked questions and made statements that observers have interpreted as favorable to both sides. LGBT supporters were disturbed when early on he gave voice to the argument that a purported “definition” of marriage had been “with us for millennia” and that “it's very difficult for the court to say 'Oh well, we know better.'" Justice Breyer also wanted an answer to questions about the issue.
However, Justice Kennedy also stated that he thought “the whole purpose of marriage” was to bestow dignity on the couple and that same-sex couples seek the same “ennoblement” that other married couples have. In questioning opponents’ counsel, Kennedy recognized same-sex couples’ argument that they seek marriage “in order to show that we, too, have a dignity that can be fulfilled.” Kennedy also noted that approximately the same amount of time has elapsed between the Supreme Court’s landmark LGBT rights decision in Lawrence and the current cases as had elapsed between Brown v. Board of Education and Loving, two of the Court’s landmark race discrimination cases.
Justice Kennedy’s references to the importance of the dignity that marriage confers are heartening. Dignity was central to Justice Kennedy’s opinion in United States v. Windsor, striking down section 3 of DOMA. He emphasized that the State of New York’s decision to end the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage reflected the state’s decision to “protect” same-sex couples “in personhood and dignity.” Justice Kennedy wrote that “essence” of DOMA was “interference with the equal dignity of same-sex marriages” and that the “injury and indignity” that DOMA inflicted on married same-sex couples was “a deprivation of an essential part of the liberty protected” by the Constitution. He stated that DOMA “tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition,” thereby “plac[ing] same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage.”
Justice Kennedy asked questions that appeared favorable to both sides during oral argument in the marriage cases two years ago, but the ultimate result of Windsor was unambiguous, and some of the language stronger than most observers anticipated. No one can predict the outcome of any Supreme Court case with surety based on oral argument or other comments Justices might otherwise make. The actual motivations for Justices’ questions are unknowable in advance. Justices may want to probe an argument fully by making statements and asking difficult questions to both sides. Further, Justices may be poised to ask particular questions, but before they speak their colleague might ask the very same thing, or the time allotted to the argument may expire.
Anticipation will continue to build as we approach the end of June, when the Justices will likely render their decision. We know that if justice prevails, marriage equality will be the law of the land and the U.S. Supreme Court will recognize that LGBT Americans deserve full equal protection under the law in our lives.
John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for nearly three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. John is the MEUSA Director of Legal & Policy; Stuart is the MEUSA Communications Director.
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
Stuart is the Marriage Equality USA National Communications Director, serving as the primary liaison to all areas of the organization as it relates to media/press: MEUSA Media Center. Stuart also oversees our organizational communications, which incudes our media relations, messaging, and our news blog and newsletter.
Stuart and his husband John Lewis have been prominent voices speaking out for marriage equality in the local, national and international media since 2004. Stuart is one of the well-known "faces" of the marriage equality movement. His messaging and marriage equality news dissemination is widely relied upon, both professionally and informally. Stuart is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, is a regular columnist for the San Francisco Bay Times and writes for other publications as well.
Stuart and John were plaintiffs in the historic California case for marriage equality, In re marriage cases (2008). Stuart's Witness declaration. Together for 24 years, they legally married in 2008. A graduate of Yale University, Stuart is a filmmaker, and in his "day job" he is a policy analyst and educator at the UCSF Center for AIDS Prevention Studies.
Not surprisingly, Stuart was president of his high school's debate team WAY back in 1980. Stuart says that one of the best times of their lives was when he and husband John backpacked around the world together before their wedding day.