Hours after supporters of same-sex marriage won their largest federal victory to date, Ian Stanley still wanted to remind them of a defeat.
In 2008, Stanley was three years removed from his coming out, but lacked the assurance even to avoid obscuring his face behind his sign while marching in gay rights events. Then, that November, the blow came: voters’ passage of Proposition 8, which removed the marriage rights the state Supreme Court had given gay and lesbian couples just five months before.
“It was personally devastating; seeing those damn yellow signs (supporting Prop. 8) felt absolutely horrible,” he said Wednesday night outside the old Napa County courthouse to an audience at the opposite emotional pole — about 110 people, many holding rainbow-hued balloons or their partners’ hands, who had marched in downtown Napa to celebrate the two U.S. Supreme Court decisions set to reinstate gay couples’ right to marry, and give them the federal benefits denied them until now.
The marchers’ double shot of good news from Washington, D.C. had reached supporters Wednesday morning. A divided U.S. Supreme Court struck down a section of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act denying federal benefits to married same-sex couples, and also ruled that supporters of California’s Prop. 8 banning gay marriage in the state had no standing to defend the law in court.
“Even if I didn’t feel comfortable in the community yet, I had to do something,” he said of a years-long push, in Napa and across the state, to restore the right of two men or two women to wed.
The high court’s decisions let stand the Ninth Circuit Court’s 2010 ruling striking down California’ same-sex marriage ban as unconstitutional. In a statement issued before the Napa rally, Gov. Jerry Brown advised the state’s 58 counties they must issue licenses to gay and lesbian couples as soon as the federal court lifts its stay on the Prop. 8 decision, possibly as soon as 25 days.
As the marchers arrived at the Napa County Historical Society building for the hastily planned procession, organizers passed them paper strips in the hues of the rainbow flag symbolizing the gay rights movement. Each person was asked to write down their deepest thoughts or greatest hope for the future, with the strips to be looped into a chain at the march’s end.
At a wooden table, Heather Webb scribbled on a pink strip, “I have been waiting 11 years to marry my wife” — Barb Miller, a Napa native whom she had met at a bowling night and married in Portland, Ore., only to have the union annulled by Oregon Measure 36 in 2004.
“I cried tears of joy this morning, screamed, hugged (Barb), squealed like a 16-year-old girl at a Justin Bieber concert,” said Webb, her elation still girlish hours later. “Just to finally have equal rights is fantastic.”
Numerous other same-sex couples were there to celebrate with Miller and Webb, some of whom declared their children will have the most to gain from their parents’ freedom to marry.
“It’s important for us, for our benefits as a married couple, for our daughter growing up in a place where our family is equal to other families in California,” Frank Hernandez said as his and Jim Cotant’s 5-year-old daughter, Sofia, placidly carved a paper starburst of no particular shape.
“I don’t think the law changes attitudes, but already it’s happening on its own,” Cotant said as he and Hernandez lifted rainbow flags for the start of the walk that began about 7:15 p.m. “I hope that continues as people realize it doesn’t take away from anybody else’s marriages.”
Such privileges as the ability to file couples’ joint tax returns and wills, and ease of medical visitation, are among the major federal rights gay couples stand to gain from the Supreme Court rulings. That prospect was not lost on Floyd McGregor and Ryan Graham, one of the estimated 18,000 couples who married in California before the 2008 ban.
“There’s so many things that are no longer a concern,” McGregor said, leaning on a cane to support legs weakened by a degenerative muscle condition.
“I wasn’t hopeful” for the return of same-sex marriage, he admitted. “Thought it would take a decade or longer to get it changed again. Today’s decisions, when they were announced ... it just brought tears to my eyes. Still does,” he said, briefly daubing at his eye.
Arriving at the old courthouse after an hour of cheers, honking horns and even a restaurant waitress rushing out to hug a marcher, the messages of hope came out, each stapled into a loop and attached to the next. A microphone was passed to a succession of marchers who read from their notes — a woman’s anticipation of her two fathers becoming husbands, or another’s gladness that gay couples soon will have the same rights as her and her husband.
Toward the rally’s end was a proposal made many times before, long before it could become official.
“I’ve said ‘Will you marry me?’ a hundred times, and she’s said ‘yes’ a hundred times,” A.J Rodriguez of Napa said with her partner of two years, China Rose Reid, by her side. “But now when she says ‘yes,’ it can be real!” she finished, barely getting the words out ahead of her welling tears and Reid’s embrace and kiss on the courthouse steps.
As the celebration neared its end at 8:15 p.m., Stanley urged the crowd not only to relish the victory, but to keep supporting equal rights in the 37 states that still ban same-sex unions. “Today we’re celebrating,” he said. “Tomorrow, we keep up the fight.”