Outside The Supreme Court: A Decision That Has Changed The Country

July 9, 2015
In The News

It took barely the first two sentences of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s narration of the momentous majority decision on same-sex marriage before the tears came for lead plaintiff, Jim Obergefell. In a widely anticipated 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held last Friday that marriage equality is now the law in all 50 states.

With crowds packed outside the court in anticipation of the verdict, the countdown began shortly before 10 am. When word came that the ruling was favorable to same-sex marriage, there was a roar of approval. But otherwise the reaction was surprisingly muted, with people hurriedly taking to the Twittersphere, or grabbing selfies with friends, notables, and with a young man dressed up as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Perhaps the dancing in the street was being conserved for the celebrations during that weekend’s biggest Pride festivals, in New York and San Francisco.

Speaking to us outside the court a short while after the verdict, Obergefell recounted how he “just started crying because I had a feeling it was going the way I thought it was going and I miss my husband.” That husband, John Arthur, who died of ALS in 2013, was the reason Obergefell had gone to court in the first place, to make the state of Ohio recognize him as the surviving spouse. The pair were legally married in Maryland just months before Arthur died.

“It really is just knowing that my marriage, my 20-year relationship with John, that Ohio can never erase that now, said Obergefell. “And that’s a very good feeling, to know that our marriage, our relationship will be respected.”

Obergefell received a phone call from President Obama shortly after the decision, the precise content of which he said he could hardly remember after being swept up in all the emotion and a flurry of television interviews. “He thanked me for being brave and being out here and being part of the fight and just that it’s due to people like me that our country moves forward,” Obergefell recalled. Obama’s phone call was recorded by CNN during which the President told Obergefell, “Your leadership on this has changed the country. I am really proud of you.”

For a couple from Pensacola, Florida, the thrill was accentuated by getting inside the courthouse to witness the decision in person. “It was just an amazing experience. Oh my gosh, we are just thrilled to death!” cried Stephanie Karous who traveled up with her wife, Laura Ericson. “Long overdue! We’re just going to have a good time and live happily ever after!”

Ericson, though, was more measured. “That would be the hope, that it would be over and we can all move on, but I think there’s still a lot of discrimination that exists in the employment arena,” she said. “It will be a long struggle until we have full equality, but as we’ve seen in recent events in the African American community, we don’t have equality in that arena either.”

That caution was shared by Rod Townsend, a board member of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York, who had been a guest earlier in the week at President Obama’s LGBT Pride event at the White House. “I think the challenges are going to become even more contentious and even more maddening,” said Townsend, who believes conservatives will continue to fight back. “It’s all based on these internal hatreds that they need to overcome and move on,” he said. “Just like the rest of the country has.” But Townsend said he still planned to celebrate, accompanying New York Mayor, Bill de Blasio, in that weekend’s New York City Pride parade. “I will be marching very happily, very loudly, and with the biggest grin on my face you can imagine,” he said, before heading back to his car for the drive home.

Georgia was one of the 13 states that the Supreme Court’s decision effectively forced to “move on.” Ethan Hyde, a law student from Mercer University in Macon, camped outside the Supreme Court all night, and was excited to enter the courthouse and “live history.” He now hoped to see greater acceptance in his home state, and at home. “Coming out to my family’s been a little bit of a struggle and I have a man I love very much back home,” Hyde said. “Now we can build a family and I hope that one day my own family accepts me.”

Perhaps Hyde’s parents needed to meet Jacque Bradley of Falls Church, Virginia, whose gay son had moved with his husband from San Francisco, where their marriage was legal, to New Orleans, where it wasn’t. “I just think this is an important step for our democracy,” Bradley said. “As a mother, it makes me feel good that people will begin to recognize their marriage and their love.”

Congressman Ted Lieu (D-CA), who last month introduced the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act to ban gay conversion therapy, was sporting a rainbow bow tie given to him during LA Pride. “It means that love wins, again,” he said of the 5-4 vote. “This is a massive step towards full equality, but there are still many areas in the law where you can be discriminated against based on your sexual orientation, such as in housing. You can be fired based on your sexual orientation, and that’s why we need federal legislation to close those loopholes.” Lieu’s bill to ban gay conversion therapy is needed, he said, because it is “psychological abuse and we need to end that horrific practice.”

LGBT campaigners hope the marriage-equality decision will help smooth the way for the many new campaigns already launching for wider LGBT rights. Stacey Long Simmons, Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs at the National LGBTQ Task Force, said there is now “a real opportunity for us as a community to, in addition to talking about marriage issues, to talk about the real, lived inequality in employment and housing and health care. Even though it’s a huge win for us, we recognize there is lots more work to do.”

Central to that work will be a focus on the transgender community, who, says Eboné Bell, managing editor of Tagg magazine, even the LGBTQ community itself has been slow to support fully. “The gay community let them down. After Stonewall, they said ‘we’ll come back for you’, but they never did,” said Bell, recalling the Stonewall riots of June 1969 that kick-started the gay rights movement. The Pride events are based around that anniversary. Transgender individuals, Bell said, are still “outcasts” and subject to some of the worst violence among the entire LGBT community. “Instead of leaving our trans brothers and sisters behind, we must pull them up,” she said.

Long Simmons agrees that transgender rights will be a key campaign going forward and adds: “We recognize that the transgender community in particular has a lot of issues pertaining to violence and homicide happening, particularly toward transgender women of color.” There are also, she said, other “very severe disparities, like 20% of LGBT people who are living in extreme poverty. And there are older LGBT adults who are experiencing discrimination in housing. Those are vulnerable populations that don’t easily have access to income. So we’re putting our foot forward on securing some protections in legislation that will cover all of those areas.”

For some, with marriage already legal in their home states, the decision was less important personally. But Curtis Robertson, who moved from New York to Washington, DC with his husband, said he knows from experience just what a difference the ruling will now make to so many more same-sex couples.

“However out I’ve been, once I was married, it was very specific. I could be my natural self and refer to my spouse,” he said. “You don’t have to have the boyfriend or girlfriend who you can’t mention. Everything is different.”