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    Happy 15th Anniversary of San Francisco’s ‘Winter of Love’

    By Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis–

    We awakened the morning of February 12, 2004, like any other morning. Stuart had a busy day ahead at his office. John had nothing unusual on tap, except for attending a midday rally on the steps of San Francisco City Hall to mark national Freedom to Marry Day. We had recently decided to get involved in the burgeoning marriage equality movement, and to begin, John would go to the rally and report back to Stuart that evening.

    At that time 15 years ago, no same-sex couple had yet been able to marry legally in the United States. When John arrived at the rally and asked co-organizer Molly McKay what the plan for the rally was, she responded in the most extraordinary and unexpected way: “You can go into City Hall right now and get married!”

    “What?!” John exclaimed. “We could get married, right now, today?!” McKay then described how San Francisco Mayor (and now California Governor) Gavin Newsom and the city had decided to open the doors of City Hall to same-sex couples to be able to marry.

    After hearing President George Bush’s attack on same-sex couples in the State of the Union Address three weeks before, Newsom had decided to take action of his own. But he had to keep his plans quiet because he knew opponents would try to stop the marriages. Lesbian rights icons Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin became the first couple to marry, just minutes before John arrived at the rally.

    But John had a problem—a big problem. He was by himself. And he feared that the opposition could be in court that very minute, trying to stop the marriages. He didn’t own a cell phone, and neither did Stuart. And Stuart quite possibly had already left his office for lunch. As he was starting to panic, a reporter noticed his demeanor, took pity on him and lent him his phone. John frantically punched in Stuart’s number.

    Stuart was fortunately still at his desk and will never forget hearing John shouting into the phone: “GET HERE NOW!!! WE CAN GET MARRIED!”—perhaps the most urgent marriage proposal ever. Stuart dropped everything and bolted to City Hall.

    When he arrived, we entered City Hall and got married—newlyweds after 17 years together. When we heard the words, “By virtue of the power in me vested by the State of California, I now pronounce you spouses for life,” we felt something transform within us. John felt chills go up and down his body. He felt those parts of him where he had unknowingly been holding the idea that he would always be “less than equal” as a gay person and that our love would always be “less than equal” dissolve and fall away.

    We realized that this moment was the first time in our lives that we had experienced our government treating us as equal human beings as gay people and fully embracing and celebrating our bond of love. We kissed for what a San Francisco Chronicle reporter described as “for a long time,” and we held each other tightly.

    During the next month, San Francisco’s “Winter of Love,” over 8,000 LGBTIQ people, their friends and families came to City Hall from across the country and around the world to get married. Many camped out in the rain and waited in long lines to marry.

    Eventually, the California Supreme Court halted the marriages, and six months later invalidated them because the city had not gone to the high court first. It would take 11 years for marriage equality to become the law of the land nationwide.

    Why should we still celebrate the Winter of Love now fifteen years later?

    For one, because it was a magical, spontaneous celebration of love, joy and equality. It instilled in those who participated the tangible hope that “dreams that you dare to dream” really do come true. It was a unique manifestation of the adage: “be the change you want to see in the world.” It was righteous, political “direct action,” bathed in contagious happiness, love, generosity, friendship and family.

    County Recorder Mabel Teng described San Francisco as the “happiest place on Earth.” We felt so euphoric that a friend had to remind us: “remember, homophobia has not come to an end.” But it kind of felt like it had; for that month, San Francisco was over the rainbow.

    During the Winter of Love, things were just as they should be at San Francisco City Hall. All that LGBTIQ couples had to do was to walk through the doors of City Hall and we’d be treated equally. We didn’t have to file a lawsuit, lobby for legislation, appeal to voters or otherwise prove ourselves worthy. We just had to be ourselves.

    We and others who joined the marriage equality movement at that time experienced something rare in a civil rights movement: a taste of the victory, the end goal, at the very beginning, for us the very first hour. For us, it meant our personal advocacy that lay ahead focused on how we wanted the world to be, not what was wrong with those in opposition.

    We know that not all people experienced such joy during the Winter of Love—for example, couples denied the ability to marry when the California Supreme Court stopped the marriages and people who rejected marriage for any number of reasons. Years later, as we had told our wedding story at a public forum in Palo Alto, a crusty, elder French person in the audience responded: “I was married years ago, and I can tell you that marriage is for the birds.”

    Ironically, the French person’s response underscored for us the most important aspect of the Winter of Love—our experience of equal dignity under the law as gay people. That heterosexual French person, who now rejected marriage, had had the freedom to get married and to decide for themselves, something long denied LGBTIQ people.

    For us, the Winter of Love and the marriage equality movement was, and is, first and foremost about our dignity as LGBTIQ people, our common humanity, and the love, joy and self-realization that we all should be able to experience in our lives.

    Happy 15th Anniversary of the Winter of Love, San Francisco. Happy anniversary to all.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.