On the morning of February 12, 2004, then San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom threw open the doors of San Francisco City Hall for all loving, committed couples to marry -- regardless of their sexual orientation, gender or gender identity. Mayor Newsom declared that his oath to uphold the United States and California Constitutions required him to ensure that San Francisco no longer discriminate against LGBTQ people in marriage.
We were on the steps of City Hall that morning to attend our very first marriage equality event -- a rally that the California chapter of Marriage Equality USA had organized. We dashed inside City Hall, got married, and soon thereafter met many amazing MEUSA leaders. The atmosphere was electric. The joy was contagious. Over the next month, over 8,000 LGBTQ people from 46 states and 8 countries came to San Francisco to marry. Mabel Teng, then SF County Recorder, described San Francisco as the "happiest place on earth."
Although the California Supreme Court stopped the marriages and later invalidated them, the taste of equality, dignity and joy that we and many others had experienced instilled in us an unshakeable dedication to attaining nationwide equality, a passion that knew no bounds.
Davina Kotulski, Molly McKay and other MEUSA leaders conceived of channeling some of this energy into an educational bus tour from coast to coast -- the national Marriage Equality Express -- nicknamed "the caravan." The caravan's purpose was to give people across our nation the opportunity to meet LGBTQ couples, and their friends and family, to see our common humanity and our shared hopes and dreams, and to hear our real life stories of how marriage discrimination harms LGBTQ people. We also wanted to support and inspire local activists across the country and to be visible as LGBTQ Americans in places where many local LGBTQ people did not feel safe to do so.
The 44 caravan riders included bi-national couples, whose relationships and families were torn apart or threatened because the federal government would not then recognize their relationships due to DOMA; military veterans who had served under the burden of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (then still in effect) and sought to overturn that discriminatory law and to be free to marry; parents of LGBTQ people; children of LGBTQ couples; and, ministers of faith communities. The group was racially diverse, with African-Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and mixed race Americans all playing active and visible roles. We were thrilled to join the caravan.
After months of preparations, including meetings and countless organizing calls, we finally embarked on our journey. On the first day, we stopped in Reno, Nevada for a rally, followed by a trip to the Silver Bells Wedding Chapel. At the Chapel, same-sex couples, fully dressed in wedding attire, asked to get married. After the stunned and perplexed receptionist declined to allow the couples to marry, we switched partners so that we were different sex couples, and asked again if the chapel could marry us. This time, she responded they could. We explained that although we were friends with our new "partners," we had years-long, loving, committed relationships with our real partners. How could it be that the chapel could marry complete strangers if they were of different sex, but not LGBTQ couples who had lived as married for decades but without the legal protections and respect that marriage affords? The event illuminated the arbitrariness and absurdity of these exclusionary laws, and underscored the caravan's motto: "Inspire Justice."
A couple days later the caravan arrived in Laramie, Wyoming for events at the University of Wyoming, followed by a commemoration of the six year anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death. Several caravan riders shared stories of anti-LGBTQ violence they themselves had survived. As we held hands in a circle the skies opened up in a dramatic display of thunder and lightning.
Later that night, the caravan stopped for dinner at a restaurant in Rawlins, Wyoming, where the restaurant's patrons looked at us as if they'd never seen -- or ever thought they'd see -- a busload of LGBTQ couples and their friends. As our meal progressed, a waitress approached Stuart and whispered, "My son moved to San Francisco...." He surmised that she was telling him that her son was gay, something she likely didn't feel comfortable telling her co-workers. He reflected how the caravan was probably extending her a lifeline by providing her temporary relief from her isolation. And, she was providing a lifeline to us as well. An attendee of our kickoff rally in California had noted the risk caravan riders would be taking, commenting, "[t]hey're going to places where they're not wanted at all." The waitress had reassured us of what we knew intellectually -- that there were LGBTQ people, their families and friends in places like Rawlins, Wyoming.
Something that disappointed some riders was the relatively small turnout at many of the caravan events. However, the personal interactions with locals along the way in and of themselves made the caravan worthwhile. The riders also developed tight bonds with each other and honed communication and advocacy skills that would prove invaluable in the long struggle for marriage equality that lay ahead. Further, we learned and made full use of the power of the media on the trip. The publicity the caravan garnered was tremendous.
The San Francisco Chronicle was so intrigued that what they described as a "motley" crew of LGBTQ couples and activists had chartered a bus to spread the marriage equality message across the country that they dispatched a reporter and photographer to the bus, not knowing what to expect. They loved the stories they got and covered the caravan on the front page of the paper every single day. Nearly everywhere we went the caravan was the lead story on the local television news. Even when there were small crowds, the local news stations and newspapers came out. At the national rally in Washington, DC, attended by many members of Marriage Equality USA's New York chapter, a photograph of many of us on stage with the Capitol Dome in the background ran repeatedly in newspapers across the country. Regardless of the turnout at any particular rally, if the caravan was on the news that night, or if a photograph of us was used the next day, we were furthering our goal of putting a human face on the issue.
While the caravan encountered little opposition from marriage equality opponents en route or at the national rally, local LGBTQ advocates weren't always welcoming. This was especially true in states that were facing anti-marriage equality referenda that year. Ian James, political director of Ohioans Protecting the Constitution, a group opposing the anti-marriage equality referendum on the ballot that year, said of the caravan, "It's not about marriage. If you fight that fight, you'll lose, and you'll lose soundly. You can be morally right and lose, but that doesn't get you anything." Some local activists feared that a busload of visible LGBTQ couples and supporters, especially from California, could alienate approachable voters rather than endear them to the marriage equality cause. Many national LGBTQ organizations withheld their support for the caravan or the national rally in Washington, DC. However, DC Congressional delegate and civil rights legend Eleanor Holmes Norton embraced the caravan and spoke at the DC rally along with California State Senator Mark Leno, sponsor of the first state marriage equality bill in the nation. Although rally attendance measured only in the hundreds, C-SPAN 2 broadcast the entire rally nationwide.
Looking back, a staggering amount of change has taken place over the last decade since the national Marriage Equality Express set out from Oakland, California on October 4, 2004. That year, then President George Bush had attacked LGBTQ couples in his State of the Union Address and proposed a Constitutional Amendment to exclude LGBTQ Americans from marriage. LGBTQ people lacked the freedom to marry in every single state along our route, DOMA prevented federal recognition of marriages of same-sex couples, and Don't Ask, Don't Tell prohibited LGBTQ Americans from serving openly in the military.
Ten years later in October 2014, nearly all the states on the caravan's itinerary -- California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Washington, DC -- have marriage equality. President Barack Obama has endorsed the freedom to marry nationwide, the Supreme Court has struck down key provisions of DOMA, and Congress has repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell. More work lies ahead, but the caravan definitely contributed in its own unique way to the success the movement enjoys today. The 2004 Marriage Equality Express demonstrates that every step LGBTQ people, their friends and family take -- and every mile we log -- along this journey brings us closer to our common goal of full nationwide equality.
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.