“I, and others, have been crying on and off all day today,” a lesbian friend of mine wrote me the day the California Supreme Court made it legal for her to marry her partner of 11 years. “It's really, really big.”
Crying. All day. That's how much the decision meant to same-sex couples in California, and Shannon Minter, the legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, totally gets it. Minter was in town last week for the San Diego Equality awards, still flush with victory. A medium-sized man with a goatee, close-cropped hair and a round-like-Charlie-Brown head, he doesn't exactly come off as a Clarence Darrow or Thurgood Marshall for our age.
But as a transgendered man, he grasps the magnitude of the case in ways that other straight people perhaps can't. “It made me think of my family back in Texas and—and just what I had been through with them initially,” he said, pausing occasionally to keep himself together. “They were not terribly accepting or supportive. When I married, that made a big difference in my family, helped break through a lot of years of silence and get to a much more open place.”
Minter believes the court decision will help gay couples have the same break-through. For him, the victory marked the culmination of a long journey. In 2004, shortly after San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, by order of Mayor Gavin Newsom, Equality California, a gay-rights group, asked Minter to defend the marriages from a conservative-led lawsuit. That case went down in defeat, so Minter, a Cornell Law School grad, helped the couples sue for the right to marry. Four years later, those 14 couples, he said, are “like family.”
“I have lived the case and worked on it and thought about it every day for the last four years,” Minter said.
He arranged to have the couples and their supporters watch the March 4 oral arguments on a closed-circuit television from an auditorium in a San Francisco library. Minter, who argued the case in court, said he felt optimistic based on the judges' response.
“I immediately noticed that Chief Justice [Ronald] George seemed to be very helpful,” he said. “He was making some of our arguments for us in very, very powerful language. He would ask a question and it would be such a powerful, wonderful question and at the end he'd ask, ‘Do you agree?' and it would be like, ‘Yes.'”
On May 14, Minter got the heads-up that a decision was forthcoming the following day. His 22-year-old daughter found out before he did.
“She'd been refreshing the [court] web page all morning,” he said. “I found out when everyone started cheering. I printed out the decision and speed-read to make sure it was true that we'd won. It was kind of an out-of-body experience.”