The Untold Story of MemChu's First Gay Wedding

Ziegler, left, and Fitzwater

Nobody wants a soggy wedding day, but as November 1, 2008, approached, LeRoy Fitzwater and Alan Ziegler had more to worry about than the threatening skies. They were trying to forecast whether Memorial Church’s first gay wedding—their own—would be a magnet for protesters and reporters.

“LeRoy and I talked about it—what are we going to do if people show up with protest signs or, God forbid, there are TV cameras there?” says Ziegler. “We had no idea what was going to happen.”

Ten years ago, holding a gay wedding at Memorial Church was history in the making. The church had opened to same-sex commitment ceremonies in 1993, but there’d been no chance of a state-sanctioned marriage there, or most places in California, until the state Supreme Court overturned the ban on gay marriage on May 15, 2008.

As news of the 4-3 decision broke, Fitzwater, MS ’98, PhD ’03, and Ziegler watched on TV from their San Jose home. There was no formal proposal. They just turned to each other and agreed it was time—after seven years together, they could do what had once seemed impossible.

Others were making similar plans, inspired by love and by anxiety. Even as the barrier to gay marriage dropped, the possibility of its reinstatement was resurrected in the form of Proposition 8, a California ballot measure to define marriage as a purely heterosexual institution.

Many couples Fitzwater and Ziegler knew elected to have small garden weddings, which, among other allures, could be organized quickly. But Fitzwater, who’d grown up Lutheran, and Ziegler, who’d been raised Catholic, wanted the symbolism, sounds and sense of belonging that a church wedding could provide. And Memorial Church, a place they had long admired, fit the bill in all regards.

Officials from the Office for Religious Life reacted as they would to anyone else, says Fitzwater, a structural engineer working in aerospace. But being like everyone else also meant following the church’s requisites, including lining up for limited Saturday spots and undergoing required premarriage counseling sessions.

In the end, November 1 was the earliest they could align church, reception space and band. By then, the pressure of Prop. 8’s potential approval three days later was bearing down. Polls showed a toss-up race. Street corners were filled with the proposition’s advocates. A sense of uncertainly about who stood where hung everywhere they went.

“I tell everybody we had a shotgun wedding, because we did,” says Ziegler, a physical therapist. “We were getting married under the gun and neither one of us was pregnant.”

Stanford may have seemed an unlikely place to worry about a protest against gay marriage. The day before Fitzwater and Ziegler’s ceremony, the Daily ran an article suggesting that supporters of Prop. 8 were all but invisible on the Farm. “With protests in White Plaza and new Facebook groups being created each day to sink Proposition 8, Stanford students might be wondering if the measure to ban gay marriage has any support on campus at all,” the article began.

But with the election so close, it seemed possible outsiders might use the wedding and its historic background as a symbolic place for last-minute politicking. The grooms weren’t hiding their marriage plans, but neither did they—or the university—do anything to solicit attention for the historic first.

Yet, not counting the downpour outside, the day went off without a hitch. Yes, Ziegler had to scratch out “Bride” and write in “Groom” on the official registry, but otherwise the wedding proceeded as they hoped, to the delight of 125 friends and family members from 11 states.

Theirs was one of several weddings in the church that day, the men recall, and the officiant noted that none of the other couples had waited—or had to wait—so long to say their vows. Modifying a familiar gospel verse, she told the assembly: “What God has joined, let no person, let no state, put asunder.”

It wasn’t so simple. Three days later, the newlyweds went from elation at Barack Obama’s victory to the despair and confusion of seeing Prop. 8 pass. It took weeks for them to establish whether their wedding was still valid in California.

It was. But five years later, they moved to St. Louis, Mo., where their union had no standing. If either got sick, they planned to grab their marriage certificate and head across the Mississippi River to Illinois, where they’d find fewer accessible hospitals but legal spousal rights.

 The pair ended up as one of eight couples to serve as plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union that ended with Missouri being ordered to recognize gay marriages from other jurisdictions. It wasn’t until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all bans on gay marriage in 2015 that the couple stopped traveling with their marriage certificate.

“Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it’s been all that long, but when I start thinking about everything that has happened, all the times our marriage has been on trial, it seems like a lot longer than 10 years,” Fitzwater says.