Supreme Court Moment: How to Take Part From Near and Afar

Lines formed for days to get into today’s first hearing before the Supreme Court on marriage equality but it isn’t the only place where history will be made.

BY Kerry Eleveld

March 26 2013 4:00 AM ET

Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis

When California resident John Lewis proposed to Stuart Gaffney nine years ago, “It was the most urgent wedding proposal you’ve ever heard,” recalls Gaffney.

Gaffney was at work. Lewis had gone to San Francisco City Hall on February 12, 2004, with the mission of participating in a rally on Freedom to Marry Day. But the action had already given way to hysteria. Mayor Gavin Newsom had just opened the spigot on same-sex marriages at city hall, which would ultimately inspire some 4,000 gay couples from around the world to follow their hearts to San Francisco over the coming days and wed them together in matrimony.

“I was ecstatic. I feverishly called Stuart at the office,” Lewis says.

“It felt like this was our chance,” adds Gaffney, noting that Massachusetts wasn’t yet marrying gay couples. “We didn’t know if this window might close at any moment.”

Eventually, the California Supreme Court invalidated those marriages, and the two men, who had met in 1987, joined a legal challenge to the ruling that prevailed four years later. On June 17, 2008, Gaffney and Lewis returned to city hall to become one of the 18,000 Golden State couples that married before Proposition 8 stripped those marital rights once again five months later.

Though the marriages sealed during that narrow window were later preserved by yet another court ruling, the legal status is cold comfort to Lewis. “Stuart and I are still married legally in California,” he says, “but after Proposition 8, we’re no longer equal. We feel the same sense of stigma that Proposition 8 has written into the California constitution.”

This week, Gaffney and Lewis, who are 50 and 54, will join hundreds of Americans at the steps of the Supreme Court to rally in support of their constitutional right to be treated with full dignity and equality under the law. After a nine-year roller coaster ride that transformed the two men into willing and vocal activists, “how could we not be there?” Gaffney wonders.

Though the Supreme Court will become an epicenter of national fascination on Tuesday and Wednesday as marriage equality supporters come face-to-face with antigay protesters, an array of equally important pro-equality events coordinated by United for Marriage will be taking place in all 50 states. (You can find a rally near you here http://www.lighttojustice.org/)

Longtime activist David Mixner, who helped originate the call for nationwide actions, says they will help meet “the personal needs within each of us” to play a role in this collective event.

“Never in my 52 years of organizing and 30-some years as an activist for the LGBT community have I seen a more historic week for this community, and we all can’t make Washington and we all can’t give money but what we all can do is show up,” he says.

Taking part, from near or afar, is a long-held Quaker custom.

“When a historical moment took place or was about to happen — like the Voting Rights bill or the Civil Rights bill — the Quakers had a tradition of giving witness, which is, you just have to somehow, by some action, acknowledge the importance of the event with dignity and silence and integrity,” he says.

That’s what inspired his idea of holding a Sunday night vigil in New York’s Time Square — drawing about 200 people with candles to what Mixner calls “the crossroads of the world.”

“I just knew I had to participate,” says Mixner, who is 67. “I can’t march long distances, I can’t get to Washington, but I can stand in Times Square for an hour and let the world know that this is an incredible moment for us.”

Mixner originally thought it would just be him and maybe a few of his friends. But after he blogged about it and tweet-casted the idea, 33-year-old activist Peter Yacobellis designed a webpage for the action and word spread.

Though Mixner was glad to have company, the numbers weren’t his focal point.

“For me, it’s a personal thing,” he says. “If there’s 10 people and it’s snowing, I’m giving witness. If it’s a thousand people, halleluja, I’m still giving witness.”

But to Mississippi organizer, Zach Magee, the events are both personal and a critical political statement.

“I think it’s extremely important for us here in Mississippi because a lot of times we get overlooked — Mississippi isn’t viewed as a state that has a lot of gay people in it,” says the 26-year-old Hattiesburg native who helped assemble a vigil at the state capitol building in Jackson for Tuesday night. Magee has 100 people confirmed for Jackson, which lies roughly in the middle of the state. But two other events are also being held at Gulfport and Oxford, in the southern and northern parts of the Magnolia state, respectively.

“The events are strategically placed so that no matter where are you in the state, there is an event that’s close for you to attend,” says Magee, who is the state lead for the LGBT activist organization GetEqual.

Mississippi isn’t a particularly friendly place for LGBT people to live. Beyond being smack dab in the middle of the reddest swath of the country, the state outlaws same-sex marriages and adoptions and lacks hate crimes, employment, and public accommodations protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents.

Even as a native of the state, Magee says he sometimes feels unsafe there.

“It is my home,” he says, “but there are a lot of places that I don’t feel comfortable being by myself.”

Just last month, Marco McMillian, a man thought to be the first viable openly gay candidate in Mississippi was killed. Not many details (including motive) are known about the case, but Lawrence Reed has been charged with the death. McMillian was one of four Democrats set to face off in a May 7 primary to become mayor of Clarksville.

On a positive note, former Democratic Governor Ronnie Musgrove came out for same-sex marriage and adoption rights last week in a heartfelt op-ed at Huffington Post.

Magee was thrilled.

“I think that it’s a really big step to have a former governor come out in support of something LGBT related,” he says. “Even though he’s no longer in office, he still has a lot of support.”

But there’s still a long way to go, and Magee hopes to say in Mississippi and push for a better lot rather than seek new horizons.

“This is very important to me because it’s my life,” he says, and although the events this week are geared toward marriage, he adds, “That’s not what we are fighting for – we want full federal equality.”

Still, like many same-sex couples across the nation, Magee and his partner of two years are keeping one eye on the Supreme Court.

“If that all goes down, then we shall be at the altar,” he says.

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