SF couple celebrates 20 years of being husband and husband

Written by Amy Ta and Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Stuart Gaffney (left) and John Lewis (right) hold up their marriage certificate on Feb. 12, 2004. Courtesy of John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney.

San Francisco made history 20 years ago today when it began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. At the time, California law defined “marriage” as between one man and one woman, and no other state allowed same-sex couples to wed either. But that didn’t deter San Francisco’s relatively unknown, baby-faced new mayor Gavin Newsom, who said, “We’re confident we’re doing the right thing.” He had only been in office for a month at that point. 

KCRW looks back on that day with John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, who were one of the first 10 couples to get married in San Francisco.

Lewis says he’s been with Gaffney for 37 years now, and on Feb. 12, 2004, they had been together for 17 years. 

That day, he thought he was just going to a rally for marriage equality, as Gaffney had a lunch meeting at his downtown office. Upon arriving at San Francisco City Hall, Lewis asked activists what the plan was, then learned he could get married on the spot. 

“They just opened the doors for LGBT couples to come get married. And I was absolutely shocked. I could not believe it,” he recalls. 

He got access to another person’s cell phone and called Gaffney. 

“When I picked it up, it was the most enormously vocally urgent wedding proposal you've ever heard,” Gaffney tells KCRW about the call. “It was John screaming into the phone, ‘Get to City Hall now! For the first time in our lives, we can get married.’ And although in my dreams I might have hoped for a dozen roses, a box of chocolates, champagne could be nice. But I just slammed on the phone and I ran out the door.”

He didn’t even get lunch because he knew a court could stop the marriages at any moment. 

After hearing the words, “By virtue of the authority vested in me, by the state of California, I pronounce you spouses for life,” Lewis says it was the first time he felt the government was treating him like an equal human being.  

However, the joy was short-lived. About a month later, the California Supreme Court declared the marriage licenses invalid. By August, the court ruled that the City of San Francisco had overstepped its authority to allow the unions. That led to years of legal battles waged in court over same-sex marriage, including the 2008 Proposition 8 referendum vote — which a federal court struck down in 2013. (Prop 8 asked voters to enshrine marriage in the Constitution as between a man and a woman.)

The day after California voters approved Prop 8, Lewis recalls, “There's a lesbian couple with young kids, and their kids … they just said to their moms next morning, ‘Does this mean that we can't be a family anymore?’ It was that visceral.”

Then in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. 

Gaffney compares the shift in public and legal sentiment to his parents’ experience as an interracial couple (his mom is Chinese American and his dad is English and Irish American). 

The two met at UC Berkeley as students: “They had to figure out what state they could get married in, and then what state they could live in and have that marriage be recognized. That crazy quilt didn't end until 1967 for interracial couples when the Loving decision — greatest case name of all time — made my parents’ marriage and our family legal in all 50 states.” 

Gaffney says his family has a tradition of fighting for marriage equality, pointing to how California’s Supreme Court was the first in the state to overturn a ban on interracial marriage. “In that decision, they said that the right to marry is the right to marry the person of one's choice. So those were the words of the California Supreme Court — 60 years before our case, one at the California Supreme Court — which really truly upheld the words ‘to marry the person of one's choice.’”

He continues, “John is the person of my choice, and we had our parents at the wedding, and my mom and dad walked me down the aisle and got to witness the next generation in our family achieving the full freedom to marry.” 

Is the couple confident that same-sex marriage will continue to be the law of the land, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision, which reversed the decades-old constitutional protection for abortions?

“The court is a tougher place for LGBTQ people than it was just a few years ago,” Lewis says. “Right now, I am confident that the court is not about to overturn the Obergefell marriage equality decision because I think there are five of the justices, at least, who support it.” 

Plus, Gaffney says public opinion on LGBTQ+ Americans has shifted immensely in the last few decades. “America has gotten to know its LGBTQ neighbors, relatives, friends, co-workers. And although we do see change in composition of the courts, and we see new strategies from-anti LGBTQ forces, I think the coming out of love is the reason why we say love wins. In the end, we've won the hearts and minds of Americans because this is an issue about love and fairness.” 

To celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary, Lewis and Gaffney are renewing their vows at San Francisco City Hall. “We're going to remember it, 20 years ago today, the way it was — where every nook and cranny was filled with the sound of couples who thought they might never be able to say ‘I do,’ saying ‘I do.’ It's music to our ears. It's like a chapel of love. But it's also a government building symbolizing the government standing up for its citizens and for all of our equal rights,” says Gaffney. 



  • John Lewis - longtime marriage equality activist, one of the first to marry in San Francisco on February 12, 2004
  • Stuart Gaffney - longtime marriage equality activist, one of the first to marry in San Francisco on February 12, 2004