In the thick of Prop. 8 fight
Fearing taunts and disapproval, they kept their love hidden for nearly two years. But with the Nov. 4 election looming, Christopher Lewis and Cody Horton resolved to take a leap of faith.
Following in the footsteps of generations of adventurers and romantics, the shy young couple from Ohio announced they were heading west to marry and begin a new life in California. They put on dark suits and exchanged vows on an unseasonably balmy afternoon in late October, before family, friends and the wide Pacific Ocean.
Wanting to give back to the state that recognized his union, Lewis took a job as a physician’s assistant at a community health center in Tehachapi, southeast of Bakersfield, caring for migrant farm workers. But by the time they had packed up their apartment in Ohio and returned to California, voters had approved a change to the state Constitution that put their marriage in doubt.
Before they moved here, the self-effacing couple had never even seen a demonstration, much less protested themselves. But two days after the election, they drove two hours into Los Angeles and nervously joined the throngs marching in protest against Proposition 8. The next night, they were back on the streets in Long Beach. The night after, in Silver Lake, then Westwood and downtown L.A.
“It just hurt so bad; it’s all we could think of doing,” Lewis said. “It’s all we have left.”
They are pessimistic that the California Supreme Court will overturn the ban, despite the high-profile appeals by top politicians, including state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown.
“I did send a wedding picture to the chief justice and wrote a note on the back of it asking him to share it,” Lewis said. “Hopefully, if they see enough faces, they will realize that their decisions make a huge difference.”
Lewis, 24, and Horton, 20, found each other online during one lonely Christmas vacation in 2006. Horton was in his last year of high school in Middletown, Ohio. Lewis was studying to become a physician’s assistant at Kettering College of Medical Arts, a Seventh-day Adventist school in nearby Dayton.
“It was awful,” Lewis said. “We had to take religion classes, and they teach being gay is wrong.”
He started searching MySpace pages for anyone listing themselves as gay in the Dayton area. A song posted on Horton’s page (Say Anything’s “Slowly, Through a Vector”) caught Lewis’ attention, and he left Horton a message. They chatted online, then agreed to meet at a club. Later, they went to the home of Horton’s grandmother, who was out of town. They put on a movie, and Horton put his head on Lewis’ shoulder.
It felt right, Lewis said. “We felt like we fit in each other’s arms.”
At first they met in hotel rooms. “Where else could we go to hug or hold hands?” Lewis said.
After Horton graduated from high school, they found jobs so they could afford an apartment together. But they continued to hide their relationship from most people. More than once, passing motorists shouted abusive comments as they walked down the street together. Some real estate agents refused to show them single-bedroom apartments.
Earlier this year, Lewis bought the nicest ring he could afford -- white gold with three tiny diamonds -- drove Horton to a park and proposed. They hugged and cried. But they could not make the union official.
The only state at the time that performed same-sex marriages was Massachusetts, which requires a couple’s home state to recognize such unions. But in May, the California Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to ban same-sex marriage, a decision that did not have the same limits as Massachusetts’ law.
Lewis and Horton, thinking there was no rush, began considering a California wedding. In September, realizing that Proposition 8 might pass, they went online to book a Long Beach restaurant and find an officiant.
Horton’s father did not realize his son was gay until the invitation arrived. Horton’s stepmother tried to persuade him to attend the ceremony; she said he walked away and wouldn’t look at the card. He later apologized to Horton for missing the big day and awkwardly wished his son well.
Lewis has been estranged from his father for years and did not bother to invite him. But both mothers and Horton’s grandmother flew to California for the Oct. 26 wedding.
The day itself passed in a blur. But leading up to it, the thought of standing on a public beach, in front of people they had lied to for years, filled them with dread. For days, they had practiced the perfect wedding kiss: long enough for photos, but not too sloppy. In the end, they managed only a quick peck. Yet for all the awkwardness, it was a day they treasure.
“In a lifetime we both spent with no support for any of our relationships . . . it is so great to stand up in front of your friends and family, the state of California and the Pacific Ocean, and have somebody recognize it, appreciate it and celebrate it,” Lewis said. “That’s a huge deal for people like us.”
Back in Ohio they packed up and began the drive west. The first four days were like a honeymoon. But Nov. 4 found them at a hotel in Flagstaff, Ariz., watching election returns. Lewis slept fitfully, waking up twice to check on Proposition 8. By 7 a.m., it was clear it had passed. “It was the end of our last hope,” Lewis said.
Horton was asleep, so Lewis slipped into the bathroom to cry. He then called his mother from the car.
“They just took away my marriage,” he wept. His mother’s advice was to fight.
They abandoned plans to visit the Grand Canyon and drove straight to Tehachapi, a rural community known for its apple orchards, wind turbines and maximum security prison. They pulled into a bleak apartment complex and collected their keys.
The magnitude of what they had done fully set in only when they got their Internet connected and looked up how their neighbors in Kern County had voted. Just over 75% voted in favor of Proposition 8.
“It is not an accepting environment,” Lewis said.
They spent the night under a comforter on the oatmeal-colored carpet. The next day, they spread sheets of yellow cardboard on the floor and started writing: “Marriage license: $70. Wedding ceremony: $1,000. Plane tickets for family and friends: $2,700. Our wedding: priceless.”
“It’s liberating to take everything you feel every day and put it on a poster,” Horton said, “and hold it up and say, ‘I don’t care who sees it.’ ”
Unthinkable even a few months ago, Lewis now has organized a protest himself.
When he found out that the American Academy of Physician Assistants, a professional association to which he belongs, planned to hold its annual conference at San Diego hotels owned by the Manchester Financial Group -- which donated $125,000 to help pass Proposition 8 -- he sent letters to senior officials at the academy, asking them to reconsider, and posted messages on Internet forums, urging colleagues to do the same.
All he could think of was how much money the conference would bring the hotels.
“It just kind of pushed me over the edge,” he said. “Somebody has to put their neck on the line, and I was willing to do it, I guess, this time.”
View a multimedia gallery on The Times’ website.