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    Ellen Pontac (1941–2020): Flooding the World with Love and Life

    By John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney–

    We met the extraordinary Ellen Pontac, along with the love of her life Shelly Bailes, on the miraculous first day of San Francisco’s Winter of Love, February 12, 2004. To our collective amazement, we, Shelly and Ellen (affectionately known as “Shellen”), and other same-sex couples had just gotten married, thanks to then San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom suddenly opening the door for same-sex couples to tie the knot. 

    As we stood in the grand rotunda of San Francisco City Hall in wonder at what was taking place, we saw an elated Pontac and Bailes signing up people to join Marriage Equality California, which later became Marriage Equality USA (MEUSA). We eagerly joined, commencing over eleven years working side by side with them and many other committed activists for marriage equality. 

    On March 15, 2020, Pontac passed away after a long illness at her home in Davis, California, with her wife Bailes and other loved ones by her side. Pontac and Bailes had been together for 46 years—years in which they “laughed, played, traveled, and worked together,” and “life was the best it could be,” as  Bailes described in a recent Facebook post.

    Pontac and Bailes met in New York City back in 1973, just four years after the Stonewall Riots. They moved in together the next year—a daring move because both were going through divorces and had children. As Bailes recounted to ABC-10 television in Sacramento last year, “Both our lawyers at the time told us that if we told anybody about our relationship, we would lose our kids. They would take them right out of our home.” Indeed, “one time Ellen’s ex-husband broke down our door, dragged her kids out by the hair in their pajamas, and threw them in the car,” Bailes recounted.

    For a number of years, the couple kept a low profile in order to protect their family, but after moving to California and hearing Harvey Milk’s call to come out at San Francisco Pride 1978, they decided they needed and wanted to come out and be activists.

    In 1986, the pair were instrumental in the city of Davis, which became one of the first municipalities in the country to pass an ordinance prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination and that defeated (by a 16 percentage point margin) an effort to repeal the measure at the polls.

    In 2000—way before marriage equality was a cause celebre and a time when many in the LGBTIQ community did not understand its importance—Pontac and Bailes became marriage equality activists.

    Together with other activists, we joined Pontac and Bailes in lobbying, organizing, and speaking at countless rallies. MEUSA created numerous events to publicize the importance of ending marriage discrimination, and Pontac and Bailes, other couples, and MEUSA activists showed up for every twist and turn of the marriage equality roller coaster to put a human face on the issue.  No one was more committed, resilient, and visible than Pontac and Bailes. 

    At MEUSA’s 20th anniversary celebration in San Francisco, MEUSA leader Molly McKay described Pontac, Bailes, and other MEUSA activists as the “rebellious energizer bunnies of the movement.” McKay recounted that Pontac always said that to win marriage equality, we needed to “flood the world with our truth to share our lives, our loves, our stories and to help find and encourage others to do the same.”

    One of the memorable things we did with Pontac and Bailes was to join 40 other activists on a 2004 nationwide bus tour from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., on the “Marriage Equality Express,” nicknamed “the caravan.” The caravan was the brainchild of another MEUSA leader Davina Kotulski, who wanted to channel the seemingly boundless energy that San Francisco’s Winter of Love had generated and to reveal to the nation the real lives of LGBTIQ people harmed by marriage discrimination. The caravan culminated in a national rally, featuring speeches from all of the caravan riders.

    Marriage Equality activists Ellen Pontac and Shelly Bailes with Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis aboard the organization’s float in the 34th Annual San Francisco Pride Parade. Photo Source:

    We were also humbled to ride with the pair and other seasoned activists on Marriage Equality California’s float in the euphoric 2004 San Francisco Pride Parade as we were just getting involved in the movement. 

    Pontac and Bailes were renowned for their creative and catchy homemade signs, their expressive personal reactions to the wins and losses on the road to equality, and their expression of their love for one another—all making them one of the most prominent couples in the nationwide marriage equality movement.

    Their signature sign highlighted the longevity of their loving and committed relationship: “Shelly & Ellen, Together 30 Years, 7 Mo, 19 Days, 10 Hrs.” With each successive year that they fought for full marriage equality, they crossed out the number 30 and added an additional year, while holding an additional sign highlighting the particular issue at that time in the struggle. At a rally before the federal court hearing to determine whether the videotapes of the Prop 8 trial should be made public, their sign read: “Free the Tapes!” The judge hearing the case grinned when he saw the sign as he walked into the courthouse that morning, and even referred to the sign in his remarks from the bench.

    Through everything, Pontac and Bailes not only maintained their sense of humor, but also never wavered in their confidence that love and equality would ultimately prevail.  We and many other MEUSA activists shared that faith. Perhaps it was something that the magic of the Winter of Love instilled in us.

    Pontac wrote in The People’s Victory: Stories From the Front Line of the Fight for Marriage Equality: “I always knew we were going to win this fight. When we joined Marriage Equality I believed that ‘Marriage was a Portal to Full Equality’ and I still feel that way. I know that when you open the hearts and minds of everyday people they not only begin to understand what equality means, but their hearts and minds don’t shut closed so easily.” Pontac and Bailes’ advocacy was never just for themselves personally; it was for all LGBTIQ people. 

    More than anything else, Pontac and Bailes revealed through their activism how much they loved each other and loved being married. Pontac and Bailes were one of the first two couples to marry legally in California when they tied the knot in Davis at 5:01 pm on June 16, 2008. Pontac exclaimed, “I’m just overjoyed. I can’t … imagine a better life,” according to ABC-10.

    At a rally subsequent to the passage of Proposition 8, Pontac declared: “There are so many things about being married that are amazing … . The thing that thrills me most often is when I’m able to introduce someone to my wife.” She continued, “When you say this is my wife, everyone knows what you mean. And the feeling is absolutely glorious … when I’m able to say: ‘This is my wife Shelly Bailes.’” Bailes for her part declared in a recent Facebook post: “I am the luckiest person on earth.”

    At one rally, Pontac held a sign that read simply, “I LOVE HER,” while Bailes’ sign proclaimed: “We are NEVER GOING AWAY.” Indeed, they never did and their love shone widely to the world. The contribution Ellen Pontac and her wife Shelly Bailes made to marriage equality and to LGBTIQ rights will be felt for generations to come.

    Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis, 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.

    Published on March 26, 2020