It's hard to overstate what today's Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage means for the country's gay and lesbian couples — not only does the decision end a vicious form of inequality in states' legal systems, but it provides dignity to couples whose love was never different from that of opposite-sex couples.
In a video produced by LGBTQ advocacy group Freedom to Marry, an Alabama couple and their 7-year-old daughter talk about what full marriage rights mean to them. The video conveys an important point: Fighting Alabama's same-sex marriage ban wasn't only about gaining the ability to jointly file taxes or make medical decisions for a spouse — it was about undoing the pervasive sense of inequality that the ban fed.
"It makes me feel like my fellow Alabamians don't view us and our family as equals," Chi Peoples, one of the moms in the video, said. "Everyone wants to believe that if you do what you're supposed to do, your family will be taken care of. But we don't have that safeguard — that every child can feel good about the home they come from."
The Supreme Court's decision today to strike down states' same-sex marriage bans is undoubtedly a huge political victory for LGBTQ advocates. But more importantly, it means same-sex couples around the US will have access to the same marriage rights as others across the country. And that has huge repercussions for couples — not just on a legal level, but on a personal one as well.
The dignity of marriage
For most straight people, it's probably difficult to imagine the effect of not having your marriage recognized. It's not just a matter of lacking legal protections, although those are very important; it's also about the torment created by the persistent reality that your city, state, and country don't treat you as they do everyone else.
Mark Pharris, who's a plaintiff in the case against Texas's same-sex marriage ban, drew a stark comparison to his parents' marriage anniversaries to explain what it feels like to have his relationship unrecognized for so long.
"This past Monday, for my parents, if they were still alive, they would have had their 74th anniversary, and they lived for their 46th anniversary," Pharris, 55, said. "Those are dates — wedding anniversaries — that neither Vic or I will likely ever live to see."
Tim Love, one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case, has been with his partner for 35 years — but they haven't been able to marry in Kentucky, where they live. "It makes you feel like you're not worthy of the same respect," Love explained prior to the court's decision. "If I tell you the truth of it, it's not even that we feel like second-class citizens — it's that we don't feel like citizens at all. People who walk across the border can get married. But we grew up here and live here, and we can't get married."
Kendra Turner, a 34-year-old in Nashville, said marriage rights will be a boon not just for her and her partner, Dacia Turner, but for their daughter as well. Because Dacia gave birth to the child, Kendra isn't listed on the birth certificate — and it was a constant concern for Kendra that if something were to happen to Dacia, she could lose her child.
"The main point for my partner and I now is the security," Kendra said. "Thinking about losing your partner … is something that's unbearable for a lot of people. But on top of losing that person, if you have to fight for parental rights for your child, that's something I don't think any couple should ever, ever have to face."
Beyond the concerns for legal security, Kendra worried about what it would be like for her daughter to grow up in a world in which her parents aren't considered equal in the eyes of the law. "When our baby grows up, I don't want her feeling like we're unequal," Kendra said. "It's draining and heartbreaking to have that feeling."
With the Supreme Court decision, all of those concerns are gone. After decades of struggles, these couples can finally achieve the basic legal dignity that's long been available to opposite-sex couples.
"I get so emotional thinking about it," Pharris said. "I'm not used to getting particularly weepy except at funerals. But for us, we can't believe we're on the cusp of being able to do something that we never dreamed of doing."
On a personal note
For me, marriage equality has always been a personal issue.
I have been married to Derek since September 2011. We married in Massachusetts, but we lived in Ohio at the time, so our marriage wasn't recognized until we moved to Washington, DC. So today's decision, as you can probably guess, means a lot to us.
In recent trips to New Orleans and Cincinnati, I joked with Derek that we were then considered boyfriends instead of husbands. We laughed about it at the time, but this was really an acknowledgment of what was basically our status as second-class citizens in the US. Even though, like opposite-sex couples, I can't describe how much I love Derek without feeling like I'm bragging — and although our love hurts no one at all — we didn't have the same rights as other married couples, and Derek and I knew it.
This is an emotional weight that offered a constant reminder that Derek and I weren't equal to other couples in the eyes of the law. It was, as Kendra Turner described it to me, a constant slap in the face against our love and marriage.
But, as with other same-sex couples, this also had practical repercussions for us. It meant I had to worry about whether I would be able to immediately see Derek at the hospital — or make important medical decisions for him — if something happened during a vacation. If we moved back to Ohio, it meant we wouldn't be able to jointly file taxes, and we would have a more difficult time getting health insurance together depending on the will of my employer at the time.
With today's decision, I won't have to worry about any of that. For the first time, I can say that my marriage is totally equal in the US — and I will no longer be told that our love is any different from the rest of the world's.