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License to Wed: John Lewis

Lawyer John Lewis has led the legal way to tying the knot for gay couples in California.

At a small house party in San Francisco 21 years ago, John Lewis (WCAS80) met his husband. Lewis had just moved to the city, and even though his friends had already left the party, he stayed behind. "I've got to stay," he thought. "I'm new to San Francisco. I've got to meet some friends." So he approached the host, the only other person he knew at the party. Lewis says the host wasn't interested in chatting with him and instead introduced him to another person who didn't know anyone at the party: Stuart Gaffney.

Lewis and Gaffney "talked for hours" that night, and Lewis says there was an instant connection. A few days later, Gaffney told a friend that he thought he had met his future husband.

In a historic decision last May, the California Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is legal. Lewis and Gaffney were plaintiffs in the case, and on June 17 — the first full day the ruling took effect — they were married in San Francisco's City Hall.

Both Lewis and Gaffney have a history of activism. "We grew up believing government could help us," says Lewis, who attended law school at Stanford University. He has worked for private law firms in class-action employment discrimination and AIDS discrimination cases. Lewis now works as the Northern California regional director for Marriage Equality USA. Gaffney works at the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies at the University of California, San Francisco.

"I would describe John as a thoughtful, careful, scholarly, gentle human being," said Thelton Henderson, a senior judge for the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California. Lewis clerked for Henderson, and the judge eventually officiated at Lewis and Gaffney's wedding. "[I] think John's work will inspire and encourage people in other parts of the country and will provide a road map for the things they are still struggling to accomplish," Henderson said.

The couple decided years ago that they would not have any wedding ceremony until it was legally recognized. On April 14, 2003 — the day before tax day — Lewis had a revelation while doing his taxes that inspired him to start working harder for marriage equality. He picked up one of the forms where he had to choose whether his status was single or married, and it hit him. "I am being forced to make statements with my own hand that I am single when it's not true," Lewis says. "My government is forcing me to lie. It's humiliation."

Less than a year later the two were married for the first time. On the morning of Feb. 12, 2004, Lewis went to City Hall to take part in the annual Freedom to Marry Day, when gay couples from around the country ask for marriage licenses and are normally turned away. But on this day, new San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom allowed same-sex marriages to be performed, despite state statute. Lewis called Gaffney frantically, telling him to get to City Hall, and the two were one of the first 10 same-sex couples to be married that day. When he heard the words, "By the authority vested in me by the state of California, I pronounce you spouses for life," Lewis remembers, "I felt these chills go down my body. A sense of inferiority shed away at that moment. This was the first time in my life that I felt like an equal human being in the eyes of my government."

But six months later the licenses were deemed null and void when the California Supreme Court ruled the San Francisco mayor did not have the authority to bypass state statute. Soon after Lewis and Gaffney joined a lawsuit to legalize same-sex marriage.

Since then Lewis has appeared on myriad news outlets. "What Stuart and I have tried to do is put a real face on marriage equality," Lewis says, "to integrate the personal with the broader public policy." He's enjoyed the experience, too. "There's a secret to advocating for freedom to marry with your spouse," he says. "It's inherently romantic. It's telling the joys of being married."

Their marriage was safe for a time, but California voters had the opportunity in November to vote on Proposition 8, which would amend the state constitution preventing same-sex marriage. "We're doing absolutely everything we can to insure that this is defeated," Lewis said before the election. "It's disturbing and unsettling that millions of Californians have the opportunity to decide whether or not Stuart and I can be married. That doesn't feel good." (Proposition 8 passed in the November election, leaving questions for those in same-sex marriages. Gay-rights attorneys planned to appeal the ballot decision with the California Supreme Court.)

For now the newlyweds are enjoying their marriage. They held a reception at a favorite Turkish restaurant in San Francisco, where they ate baklava instead of wedding cake. During the party some friends snuck out and wrote "Just Married" in shaving cream on Lewis and Gaffney's car. "I wanted that day when my car got the shaving cream," Lewis says. "We drove away and said, 'This is perfect. This is just perfect.'"

— Christopher Danzig (J08)

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City Hall
From left, Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis celebrate their marriage outside San Francisco's City Hall on June 17.Photo by Darcy Padilla
Gaffney reads his vows to Lewis during their wedding ceremony, as Judge Thelton Henderson looks on.Photo by Darcy Padilla