What a momentous day for “equal justice under law”! Today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. As Justice Kennedy writes in his majority opinion:
[The couples’ challenging state bans on same-sex marriage] hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.
I can only imagine the mixed emotions of the lead plaintiff, Jim Obergefell, at hearing those words affirming his marriage to his partner of 21 years, John Arthur.
Jim and John married soon after the Supreme Court’s previous gay marriage decision striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, United States v. Windsor. Although they lived in Ohio, they had to fly to Maryland to be married as Ohio would not recognize their marriage. Three months and 11 days later, John died. Jim was listed on John’s Ohio death certificate as John’s spouse only because Jim had sued the state and won. Ohio appealed that ruling, leading to today’s Supreme Court case being named Obergefell v. Hodges. Richard Hodges is the Ohio official who handles death certificates. So, despite today’s victory, I imagine that Jim is feeling sad and, yes, lonely, his personal victory being allowed to be listed as John’s spouse on John’s death certificate.
I am reminded of my own feelings on June 25, 2011; the day after my current home state of New York passed its Marriage Equality Act. My partner’s mother died that evening, and I had the honor of being with Scott, his father, and his mother at her bedside for the 24 hours before she died. The next day, a friend of mine, the New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, wrote a column for the Times’s Sunday Review, To Know Us Is to Let Us Love, talking about marriage equality in a very personal way. I was moved by Frank’s column and wrote him the following e-mail:
I read your column this morning with obvious interest. Unfortunately, I was not in New York this weekend to celebrate this hugely important occasion for us, and I wanted to share with you why. I was in DC with Scott, doing what families, couples—spouses—do. I was sitting at Scott’s mother’s hospital bedside with Scott and his father as she died after a year-long battle with cancer. I have never felt so privileged and so married in my life. And, it means so much to me that now that relationship can be honored and respected as equal to my brothers’ marriages. As I read your column, I realized that I don’t need marriage equality to make it real, but I—and all other gay couples like us—deserve it.
With today’s ruling, I reiterate that I do not need marriage equality to make my relationship real, I deserve it, and I thank Justice Kennedy for recognizing that the Constitution of the United States—my constitution—grants me the right to equal dignity in the eyes of the law.