UCSF's Gaffney to be Grand Marshal in San Francisco Pride Parade

By Lisa Cisneros

Thanks in part to the tremendous support from the campus community, UCSF's own Stuart Gaffney and his partner, John Lewis, will be the Community Grand Marshals in the 37th Annual San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade.

The San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration is set for Saturday, June 23, and the parade along Market Street begins at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, June 24. The celebration continues at the Civic Center Plaza from noon to 7 p.m.

Gaffney, who works at the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies, and Lewis are spearheading the fight to end marriage discrimination in California, as plaintiffs in the marriage lawsuit before the California Supreme Court this year, and as leaders of Marriage Equality USA and Asian Equality. Joining them as plaintiffs in the California case are Jewelle Gomez and her partner, Diane Sabin, who is executive director of the UCSF Lesbian Health & Research Center.

Together for 20 years, Gaffney and Lewis have been outspoken in their quest for equal rights and have been interviewed by NPR, CNN and the New York Times. Together, they have engaged in years of activism, legal work and policy research on HIV/AIDS, and have made numerous films on HIV/AIDS and on LGBT and Asian American identity, which have been shown at film festivals worldwide.

UCSF Today caught up with Gaffney to hear from him what it's like to be recognized as the Grand Marshals in the 2007 San Francisco Pride Parade.

How did you meet John and what attracted you to him?

I met John at a small political house party in 1987, when openly gay San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Harry Britt was running against Nancy Pelosi for an open seat in Congress. Our romantic first date was the candidates' debate - you know it's true love when you both want to go to the candidates' debate! And our second date took us to a brand-new Chinese herbalist restaurant in North Beach, where we dined on swallow's nest soup, tree bark and deer antler.

Later, we extended our culinary adventures on two yearlong backpacking trips around the world, where we sampled local cuisine from Zambia to Burma to Mongolia. Twenty years later, we're still attending political house parties, advocating equal marriage rights for LGBT couples.

When did you know you were gay, and what was it like coming out to your friends and family?

I never thought I was straight, so whenever one becomes aware of feelings of attraction, that's when I knew I was gay. My college roommate and I inadvertently came out to each other by running into each other at the first LGBT students' meeting freshman year, and I came out to my family and friends shortly thereafter. They've all been really supportive, and many of our family members will be joining us at the Pride Parade. We're hoping to have four generations of family marching with us!

What are some of the myths or misconceptions about gays?

One myth we are working to dispel is that LGBT people don't form lasting relationships and families. Regardless of the ups and downs of the movement for marriage equality, I take comfort from the fact that kids growing up today can see LGBT couples just by reading the news or turning on the TV. The national conversation about equal rights for our community puts images of our families in the headline news - images that were nowhere in sight when I was growing up in Wisconsin in the 1960s.

Why did you decide to spearhead the fight to end marriage discrimination in California, and what is the status of the case?

Our marriage equality work began in earnest at 11:30 a.m. on February 12, 2004, when John called me at work from the annual freedom to marry rally at City Hall to say that San Francisco had just started issuing marriage licenses to all loving couples, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. I dashed from my office to City Hall, and we made our way as quickly as possible to the County Clerk's office to get married, as CNN, local, national and international press began to gather. The moment we married was transformative for us - not just as a couple, but as gay men.

When we heard the words, "by virtue of the authority vested in me by the State of California, I now pronounce you spouses for life," we felt for the first time in our lives that our government was treating us as fully equal human beings as gay men, and recognizing our love and commitment as worthy of the full respect of the law. As we stood in the grand rotunda of City Hall, we also reflected on the day over 50 years earlier when my mom, who is Chinese, married my dad, who is English and Irish.

When my mom was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley a few years earlier, California law prohibited Chinese Americans from marrying Caucasians, just as California law today prohibits same-sex couples from marrying. She still remembers how one of her classmates at Berkeley had to leave the state to marry her white partner. When the California Legislature enacted the interracial marriage ban in 1850, one of the legislators proclaimed that a child of Chinese and white parents would be "a mongrel of the most detestable that has ever afflicted the earth..."

Fortunately, the California Supreme Court in 1948 overturned the state's interracial marriage ban as unconstitutional. Had the court not overturned that law, my parents may never have married, and I might not be here today. John and I are now plaintiffs in the California lawsuit for equal marriage rights for same-sex couples, and our case is before the California Supreme Court this year. UCSF's Diane Sabin, along with her partner, Jewelle Gomez, are also plaintiffs in this case, and we are hopeful that later this year, the court will rule for all Californians the right to marry the person of their choice.

What has been the most exciting experiences for you in your role as a gay activist?

In 1987, I participated in civil disobedience at the US Supreme Court to protest the notorious Bowers v. Hardwick decision upholding anti-LGBT sodomy laws. We successfully shut down the court that day and made an important statement about our community's commitment to social justice. I'm glad to have lived to see the day the court reversed itself and struck down sodomy laws nationwide in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision, although I'm saddened that many fellow activists from that era are no longer with us.

What has been the most difficult challenge to overcome as a gay man?

To be honest, our biggest challenge as a community is our own infighting. Learning to work collaboratively is an ongoing challenge: Until we can work together consistently, we will be hindering our own efforts to advance social justice.

What is your job at UCSF, and how do you like working at the University?

I am a project director at the AIDS Policy Research Center at the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies (CAPS), where I've worked since 2001. My colleagues at CAPS are wonderful, dedicated people who have been incredibly supportive of our quest for equal rights. I came of age as a gay man just as the AIDS epidemic was unfolding, so I am quite thankful to find myself working at CAPS with world-class researchers in the field of HIV prevention.

What will you both be wearing as Grand Marshals in the 2007 Pride Parade?

Come to the Pride Parade and see! We live in the Haight, where there are many vintage clothing and costume stores, and we're combing those stores right now to find just the right mix of dignified and fabulous! Any suggestions?

Who do you think is the best candidate thus far in the 2008 presidential race and why?

We had the opportunity to meet John Edwards a few months ago, and talk to him about the need for LGBT equality. We were pleased to see that in May, he announced support for the bill that would grant immigration rights to LGBT couples, thus allowing thousands of binational LGBT couples to stay together. Unfortunately, like many other presidential candidates, he has yet to come out in favor of marriage equality. So, rather than supporting any one candidate, we are doing whatever we can - in the courts, legislature and ballot box - to get all branches of government to grant full recognition to our relationships. LGBT people deserve nothing less.