The T-shirt of an activist during a gay rights rally against Proposition… (Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty…)
In 1953, Mason Gaffney and Estelle Lau got married.
They were young, itinerant professors, he of economics, she of education. Because of Lau's Chinese heritage, and because the U.S. Supreme Court had not yet struck down race-based marriage restrictions, when they moved out of California, their marriage was no longer recognized. "It was unthinkable," said their son, Stuart Gaffney.
And then, in 1987, it wasn't — because Stuart Gaffney moved to San Francisco and fell in love with a man named John. The family embarked on a second journey through the labyrinth of judicial and public sentiment, whiplashing from moments of bliss, such as the couple's 2008 marriage, to days of heartbreak, such as the passage of Prop. 8, the amendment that banned gay marriage in California.
Then came Wednesday, when President Obama declared that the "evolution" of his position on gay marriage was complete. Each of the family's odysseys has come with a moment when it became clear that they were on the right side of history, and for Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis — together now for 25 years — this was it.
"I'm feeling chills in my spine," Gaffney said, shortly after Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage rights in a televised interview. Gaffney, a policy analyst at the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies, and his partner were plaintiffs in a lawsuit urging legalization of same-sex marriages. "The president of the United States has affirmed that every loving couple in this country deserves the fundamental freedom to marry. We have never heard that before from the highest office in the land."
Obama's statement might have made him the first sitting American president to support same-sex marriage, but it carried no immediate policy changes. In the end, the legality of gay marriage will be decided primarily in the states and the courts, not in the White House. None of that seemed to dampen the reaction Wednesday, as gay communities and urban centers up and down the West Coast ignited in disbelief and celebration.
"Obama understands, from the inside-out, systems of oppression and what they do to people," said the Rev. Jane Spahr, a lesbian who was found guilty of violating the Presbyterian Constitution for marrying same-sex couples when it was legal in California. "There is nothing like the support of hearing this from the president, that he so fully understands what love, commitment and family mean to our community."
In West Hollywood, one of the first cities to create a domestic partner registry and one of the first to pass a resolution calling for same-sex marriage rights, crowds gathered abuzz at City Hall and in cafes, phones rang off the hook and several people said they wept with joy.
In San Francisco, where the first gay marriages in the country were performed at City Hill, changing the dynamics of the 2004 presidential campaign, Mayor Edwin M. Lee said the city was prepared to resume same-sex marriages as soon as the courts would allow it.
"As someone whose position has also evolved, I know this is an issue of equality and basic human rights," said San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, a Republican who risked his political career in 2007 by defying his party with his support of same-sex marriage. At the time, Sanders said he could not tell his gay daughter that she did not have the right to marry; the next year, Sanders won reelection with ease.
"Two people who love each other should be able to get married. It's really as simple as that," he said. "History will judge President Obama kindly for his decision."
The reaction, of course, was not universally positive. Catholic League President Bill Donohue released a statement suggesting that Obama's next logical step would be "Tom, Dick and Harry marrying," and Mitt Romney, the expected Republican nominee for president, reiterated his opposition to same-sex marriage.
"I'm not ready to accept this yet," said Robert Morrison, 79, at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles on Wednesday. His wife shook her head slightly, and noted that times have changed. Morrison was unmoved.
Across the street, Charles Mitchem, 52, of Paramount, said he also opposed the president's position. "It's the way I was raised," he said. "It's always been a man and a woman."
The public's acceptance of gay marriage, however, is accelerating with each generation; recent Pew Research Center data has shown that although a third of people who reached adulthood between the late 1940s and early 1960s favor same-sex marriage, almost six in 10 "Millenials" — aged 18 to 30 — are in favor.
Among those interviewed Wednesday who tilted toward the younger end of that spectrum, even some self-described conservatives embraced same-sex marriage.