By James Gilliam
Two years ago, my best friend asked me to officiate at her wedding. It was an honor to play that special role in her life, and I loved doing it. But standing before the crowd, I was struck by the unfortunate irony of the situation: Even as I married my friend and her husband, I could not marry my own partner. I decided that hers would be the last wedding I attended until I had the freedom to have my own.
Now, I will have that chance. Today, the United States Supreme Court ruled that opponents of marriage for same-sex couples lacked standing to appeal a decision that struck down Proposition 8. This ruling restores the freedom to marry in California. In a separate ACLU case, the Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, allowing married same-sex couples to begin receiving federal benefits, now that the federal government will recognize those marriages.
People will pay lots of attention to the details of the Court’s opinion. As an attorney and the deputy executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, I could give my legal analysis. But instead, I want to tell you about what this day means for me personally, as an unmarried gay man in a relationship that has lasted longer than any our parents ever had.
James and Lamont, 1995.
Before the California Supreme Court ruled in May 2008 that same-sex couples have a right to marry, my partner and I didn’t think much about marriage. We grew up in Tennessee, where gay rights still languish. I spent years ignoring those commercials about saving two months’ salary for an engagement ring. Even after my partner, Lamont, and I moved to California in 2000, I didn’t daydream about proposals. Marriage never seemed like a possibility.
But after the release of the groundbreaking In re Marriages decision, I went from never thinking about marriage to not being able to get it off my mind. Marriage became an option. I asked around about the best wedding venues in southern California. I thought about what role our pets would play in a ceremony. Then, less than six months after the California Supreme Court granted me the freedom to marry, voters passed Prop 8, taking away that right.
I still remember the passage of Prop 8 in painful detail. Lamont and I gathered around the television. We watched the election returns trickle in. We witnessed the historic victory of our first black president. We stayed up late together, hoping to see the proposition’s defeat. By the early hours of the morning, however, the outcome was clear. I was shocked to see Californians enshrine discrimination into the state’s Constitution.
Living in Tennessee, I was accustomed to slurs about my sexual orientation. But California was supposed to be different. Crossing the state line on our move to the Golden State – our car filled with our belongings – Lamont and I listened as the Pet Shop Boys sang about how “life is peaceful there” in the song “Go West.” It seemed to herald a new kind of life. Sure, we were excited about “sun in wintertime,” but we also hoped California would be a place where we could celebrate fully our long-term relationship. The day Proposition 8 passed, I felt that hope dissolve.
Why didn’t we marry during the window in 2008 when marriage between same-sex couples was legal in California? In part, the decision was practical. With the Defense of Marriage Act in place, we would not be entitled to the federal tax benefits afforded other married couples. But there were also emotional reasons. Because marriage had not been a possibility for us before, we never really had enough time to discuss the idea. And the passage of Proposition 8 cut short our time to have that conversation.
The past five years have been long. They have been painful. But today, with the Supreme Court’s decision to restore the right to marry here, California is the state we hoped it would be when we first arrived. It is a state full of possibility.
Eighteen years have passed since my partner and I fell in love. Now I can finally go home and have a long talk with him about marriage.
James Gilliam is deputy executive director at the ACLU of Southern California. Follow ACLU_SoCal.