top of page
  • Sasha Issenberg

Remembering John Lewis's early, lonely support for same-sex marriage

John Lewis was one of the first American elected officials of any prominence to express support for, or at least acceptance of, same-sex marriage.

In 1996, he gave an impassioned floor speech against the Defense of Marriage Act introduced by his Georgia congressional colleague Bob Barr. Lewis said it "should be called the defense of mean-spirited bigots act."

Lewis's vote against the bill was notable because many of his peers in the Congressional Black Caucus –including James E. Clyburn, Eddie Bernice Johnson, Bobby L. Rush, and Lewis’s fellow Georgian Sanford Bishop, Jr. – backed DOMA. (Sheila Jackson Lee voted present.)

Other white liberals voted for DOMA, too, as a young David Grann pointed out in The Hill. In an interview, Lewis told him, “In some instances; people are afraid to go with what they really believe because there is a political price to be paid.” Adding, “certain rights are basic human rights. You cannot tell individuals they cannot fall in love. Dr. King used to say when people were talking about inter-racial marriage: ‘Racists [sic] don’t fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married.’”

Lewis’s nay vote is all the more notable because he indicated comfort with same-sex marriage itself. Many Democrats who opposed DOMA argued it was unnecessary, mean-spirited, an example of federal overreach – but never quite endorsed equal marriage rights.

The ACLU noted Lewis’s stand, too, citing his interview with The Hill in an unusual press release publicizing the group’s failure to successfully lobby its “allies.”

Pro-gay-marriage activities, who had little rhetoric from politicians they could invoke to reinforce their position, began quoting from Lewis’s floor speech. Evan Wolfson, who would go onto found Freedom to Marry, closed speeches with it. Dan Foley, a Honolulu civil-rights attorney who had successfully challenged that state’s exclusion of gay and lesbian couples from marriage before the Hawaii Supreme Court, cited Lewis before a hearing of the state house’s judiciary committee.

A year and a half after the DOMA vote, Lambda Legal asked prominent Americans to make a full- universal endorsement of “equal marriage rights for same-sex couples” by signing its Marriage Resolution.

When Lambda Legal unveiled a list of the resolution signatories, there were some big names like Ellen DeGeneres and Gloria Steinem, and some big-for-1998 names, like Paul Reiser and Luscious Jackson.

There was only one federal or statewide official: Representative John Lewis.


The Engagement:
America's Quarter-Century
Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage

​By Sasha Issenberg

The riveting story of the battles over gay marriage
in the United States – the most important
civil-rights breakthrough of the new millennium.
The Engagement 3Db.png
bottom of page