On Tuesday April 28, 2015, the morning of the Supreme Court oral arguments on what could be the decisive marriage case, Mary Bonauto woke early at the Residence Inn in downtown Washington, DC, after a difficult night of sleep. But that was something the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders attorney who had been carefully stewarding the movement’s legal strategy on marriage for years had grown accustomed to after having been selected to argue the marriage case before the Supreme Court just a month before. She’d been holed up at the hotel for nine days, and every morning she’d woken at dawn and spent the day reviewing cases and briefs, prepping for potential questions from justices, and practicing the points she wanted to make. She knew that her main job in oral arguments was to drive home the points that would advance the ball while conceding nothing that could harm the case.
Mary had completed several practice or moot courts, including one where five conservatives acted as justices and grilled her for more than an hour. In fact, most of her contact with the outside world was with other attorneys on the case, including her colleagues from LGBT legal organizations (who were in Washington with her), a couple of Supreme Court experts, and Douglas Hallward-Driemeier, who would argue another part of the case. All had helped her hone her arguments.
The night before the big day, Mary did what she had done for every one of her previous oral arguments: she condensed the points she wanted to make in the order in which she wanted to make them, writing them out on two legal-sized pages. She did so knowing that she’d probably only make it through her first couple of sentences before the justices began bombarding her with questions. But now wasn’t the time to prepare any differently. This was an approach that had served her well.
That morning, I woke at 6:30 a.m., eager to hear Mary present the oral arguments for our side. Mary was a hero to me, and she and I had been fighting this battle together for more than a decade.
Despite the magnitude of the day, I felt oddly calm. I wasn’t nervous like I’d been two years before, when the Supreme Court heard Edie Windsor’s challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act along with the Prop 8 case. That was the first time the court had heard a challenge to marriage discrimination. Now there were thirty-seven states in the win column, comprising 75 percent of the US population. A February CNN/ORC poll showed that a substantial majority of Americans believed gays and lesbians had “a constitutional right to get married and have their marriage recognized by law as valid”— with 63 percent in favor and 36 percent opposed. Even in the South, 57 percent of respondents supported marriage equality, with 60 percent support or greater in every other region in the country. In addition, we’d been on a tremendous winning streak in court—with more than sixty victories in federal and state courts since DOMA had been struck down, versus only a handful of losses.
Even though I felt confident, however, I still took a few extra precautions for good luck. I wore the same purple tie that I’d worn the day of the Windsor oral arguments, and I put whole milk rather than skim in my coffee. That was a nod to the line Ruth Bader Ginsburg had used two years ago, when she said that marriages without federal recognition were “skim milk marriages.”
As I walked along the streets of Capitol Hill toward the Supreme Court that sunny morning, the Jewish prayer “Oseh Shalom” (Make Peace) came to mind. After years of fighting for our dignity and equality, I felt like our movement had brought the country to where it needed to be. Now was the time.
I walked around the front of the Supreme Court building, looking at the signs that thousands upon thousands of our advocates were holding, and greeting people I’d come to know over the past decade of this fight. One woman held a dog on a leash and a sign that read, “Tax-Paying Lesbian With Supportive Black Pug.” She told me that she’d officiated at 700 weddings of same-sex couples in Northampton, Massachusetts. We reminisced about the early days in that state, when we went to constitutional conventions and fought back against anti-gay constitutional amendments. We snapped a couple of pictures and I gave her a hug.
I met up with Evan Wolfson, Freedom to Marry’s president, at 8:30, between the Russell and Dirksen Senate Office Buildings, a block north of the court. As we walked along First Street, past all those who were rallying on our side, people kept coming up to both of us, especially Evan, with heartfelt thanks. It felt amazing to be walking into the Supreme Court for these arguments with the guy who was responsible—more than anyone else—for driving the movement to this point over the past three decades.
We went up the steps of the court, where I told the guards that we had reserved seats inside the courtroom. I’d secured two of these highly sought-after seats through old Republican connections, and couldn’t help but smile at the irony of my own political journey over the years. Evan and I were the special guests of Justice Clarence Thomas. We went through multiple security checks, locked our cellphones in special lockers, then took our places in the ornate courtroom, which was packed for this historic argument.
At 9:30 a.m. on Friday, June 26—two months after oral arguments—I was in our New York City office sitting around a large conference table with fifteen staff members, including Evan. The walls were adorned with framed front pages of newspapers from the day after victory in each of the first twenty-five marriage states, with another twelve lining the hallway. Nearly everyone’s laptop was open, and most of us were typing nervously, finalizing graphics and tweets for social media, organizing press lists, and making other final preparations for a possible decision. A box of Dunkin’ Donuts, courtesy of Evan, sat in the middle of the table. The large-screen television at one end of the conference room was streaming SCOTUSblog, the best source for up-to-the-minute information on court decisions.
There were only a handful of decisions left for the court to announce that term, so it seemed likely the final decisions would come either on this day or the following Monday. This day was the two-year anniversary of the Windsor decision and the twelfth anniversary of Lawrence v. Texas, the two most important gay rights decisions by the Supreme Court, both written by Justice Kennedy. If Kennedy were writing for the history books, it made sense that today would be the day.
I’d woken up that morning thinking about two young people. One was a high-school junior, the first cousin of my two nieces, Madeline and Zoe, ages fifteen and twelve, both amazing allies. With great pride, they had recently shown me their cousin’s prom picture. His date had been another boy who looked to be the same age. They were sitting on a swing together, their arms around one another, both wearing black tuxedos with white boutonnieres, looking happy, adorable, and care-free.
The other young person on my mind was the son of close friends, a teenager who had just come out of the closet. I’d seen his mother the night before, and she told me how proud she was of him for telling his friends and family members. The notion that gay kids in their teens, along with future generations of LGBT young people, might grow up in a world where the most important social and cultural institution—marriage—treated them, their relationships, and their love as worthy of dignity and respect was profoundly moving to me.