The latest California public opinion poll shows record support for marriage equality — 64% of likely voters and 61% percent of all adults. This news made us realize how wonderful it is when dreams really do come true, and when political goals that once seemed impossible are actually achieved. When the U.S. Supreme Court rulings ended Prop 8 and Section 3 of DOMA this summer, we wrote a press release for Marriage Equality USA saying that there would now be “more love and more marriage” than ever before. Yet we didn’t anticipate fully just how it would feel, landing somewhere over the rainbow — where instead of rallying for marriage equality in front of City Hall, we were getting invited to weddings inside City Hall. And for the first time we started having a whole new relationship to these weddings – in addition to getting wedding invitations, we started being invited to officiate. There truly is no better reward for a marriage equality activist!
“By the power vested in me by the State of California, I pronounce you lawfully married spouses for life.” Those words have always held great meaning for us, not just because of the emotions we associate with weddings, but because they represent the first time we felt our government treating us as equal human beings, worthy of the full dignity and respect of the law. To be able now to say those words as officiants for couples saying “I do” is an amazing experience.
No two couples are alike, and no two weddings are alike. We remember how the thousands of couples and families who lined up all day and even overnight in the rain outside San Francisco City Hall in February 2004 represented one of the most diverse gatherings of our community we had ever seen. And the couples we have been lucky enough to marry have been young and old, rich and poor, sick and healthy – just like the words in the wedding vows they recite. And now, without the deadline pressure couples felt in 2004 and again in 2008, couples are planning their happily ever afters with the greatest of love, care and creativity. One couple designed their own avatars. Another couple planned a fairytale honeymoon literally — at Disneyland. Yet another couple had feminist wedding cake toppers – “Sisterhood is Powerful” and “Viva La Revolucion.” And another had no money for rings, but still shared a very personal moment of commitment and equality. And so on — the creativity is endless, and the only constant is the joy — and tears of joy — in the eyes of couples who may have been together for 5 years or 50 years, but weren’t sure they would live to see the day when they could finally hear wedding bells ring out for them.
As we perform marriages for dear friends and total strangers alike, it’s hard to imagine a political cause with a “happier” ending than the movement for equal marriage rights in California. But much remains to be done as we work to achieve marriage equality nationwide, to attain full equality in all aspects of our lives, and to stop homophobia and transphobia in all their manifestations. We were reminded of the work ahead when we recently performed a same-sex couple’s “confidential” marriage ceremony, a legal marriage with no traceable public record of the names of the couple. The couple needed the confidential marriage because they had very real fears for their safety in their community if it became known they were married. But the love and affection they felt for each other, their joy at marrying, and their sense of dignity at being treated equally under the law was palpable as their eyes locked on each other as they said “I do.” The substantive legal benefits of marriage were also very important to this couple with very limited income and financial resources. The world is changing right before our eyes — one wedding at a time.
The movement for full equality has been filled with an enormous array of emotions and will undoubtedly involve many more successes and challenges. As we move forward, experiencing and sharing the joy of success inspires us as a diverse community to reach even greater heights. As we celebrate with the newlyweds in San Francisco City Hall, there’s truly no place on earth we’d rather be.
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. They are leaders in the nationwide grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA.