John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney attended a rally at City Hall a decade ago not knowing that it would be the start of a national movement born right here in San Francisco.
On Feb. 12, 2004, The City would open the door for same-sex marriage and Lewis and Gaffney would emerge as one of the first 10 couples to tie the knot. The next month would become known as the Winter of Love.
The ceremony was simple and brief. But when they heard the words, “By virtue of the authority vested in me by the state of California, I now pronounce you spouses for life,” Lewis said he and Gaffney, who at the time had been together for 17 years, “felt something transform within.”
“We realized at that moment that this is the first time in our lives that our government is actually treating us as equal human beings,” said Lewis, 55. “I didn’t know how powerful an experience that would be.”
But their married life was short-lived.
Despite a directive from then-Mayor Gavin Newsom stating that nowhere in state law did it specify a ban on same-sex marriage, the California Supreme Court halted nuptials in The City a month later. The court wanted to examine whether Newsom exceeded his authority.
The 4,027 marriages performed up until then were considered null and void.
It wasn’t until May 2008 that the state high court decreed same-sex marriage legal under the California Constitution. However, in November of that year, those rights were again stripped away with the passage of Proposition 8 at the ballot.
“One of the lowest points for us was when our marriage was put up for vote and was taken away by Prop. 8,” said Gaffney, 51. “But we’ve lived to see a better day.”
In the roughly six-month window of legality, The City issued about 5,300 same-sex marriage licenses that remained legal despite Prop. 8. Lewis and Gaffney were among those couples.
Finally in June of last year, Prop. 8 was effectively rendered null and void when the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition to appeal a federal judge’s earlier ruling that the ban was unconstitutional.
Marriage equality in California was restored.
Over Pride weekend last year, which took place weeks after the Supreme Court decision, 563 marriage licenses were issued to same-sex couples in San Francisco. Beyond that, The City hasn’t kept track because “at that point, every marriage is equal and there is no reason to draw a distinction in data,” said Bill Barnes, project manager for the City Administrator’s Office.
But the County Clerk’s Office has seen an impact.
In 2013, the office increased the number of appointments for licenses from 250 per week to 326, and it continues to grow this year, Barnes said.
For The City, same-sex marriages mean higher tax revenue because married couples tend to have a higher taxable income, as well as fewer costs in providing government services, according to testimony during the Prop. 8 trial and a 2008 report from the Controller’s Office of Economic Analysis.
“In general, the human service cost is less when you have fewer people traumatized by discrimination,” said Ted Egan, San Francisco’s chief economist.
Lewis and Gaffney have since joined the national organization Marriage Equality USA — Lewis as legal and policy director and Gaffney as spokesman. Also, Lewis in 2010 became certified as a marriage officiant who, along with Gaffney, performed his first wedding for an opposite-sex couple. That couple 10 years ago gave them a card bearing the message: “Congratulations on your marriage in defiance of an unjust law.”
Lewis and Gaffney plan to join other couples today at City Hall to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Newsom’s directive.
“In a sense, it will be a collective renewing of our vows that will be both personal to each of the couples but also a collective vow as a community to mark all that we have done for the last 10 years,” Lewis said. “And a collective vow that we want every American in every state in our country to have the freedom to marry the person that they love.”
MARKING THE OCCASION
Events commemorating 10 years since The City first issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples:
3:45 p.m. – Gathering at the City Hall Rotunda to proceed to Clerk’s Office, site of protests in past years, to give thanks for marrying same-sex couples
5 p.m. – The City’s official celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the Winter of Love at the City Hall Rotunda
5:15 p.m. – Grace Cathedral (1100 California St.) will hold a service with music and a reception to celebrate the efforts of marriage equality activists in the past 10 years
Feb. 12, 2004: San Francisco begins issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
March 11, 2004: The California Supreme Court halts The City’s same-sex marriages pending court review.
Aug. 12, 2004: The state high court says San Francisco overstepped its bounds and declares all same-sex marriages performed in The City null and void.
March 14, 2005: San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Kramer rules that same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional.
May 15, 2008: The California Supreme Court rules that same-sex couples cannot be denied the right to marry.
June 16, 2008: Same-sex marriage is legal in California.
Nov. 4, 2008: Proposition 8 is passed by voters, banning same-sex marriage in California.
May 23, 2009: Perry v. Schwarzenegger is filed in U.S. District Court, challenging the validity of Prop. 8.
Aug. 4, 2010: Federal Judge Vaughn Walker rules that Prop. 8 is unconstitutional.
Feb. 7, 2012: A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules 2–1 that Prop. 8 is unconstitutional.
June 26, 2013: An appeal of the federal ruling from 2010 is dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court, leaving in place the ruling and making same-sex marriage legal again in California.
June 28, 2013: First same-sex marriages are performed again.
Aug. 14, 2013: The final legal challenge to same-sex marriage is dismissed by the California Supreme Court.