Progress marches on, with or without Supreme Court

The key to maintaining discrimination is segregation.

If people are kept divided from one another – torn into “us” versus “them” – then it’s much easier to build the animus that allows discrimination to survive.

Once we get to know each other, the walls that are built to keep us apart start to break down.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments in two landmark cases, Hollingsworth v. Perry and Windsor v. United States, both of which seek to break down barriers to allowing same-sex couples to marry.

Perry challenges the constitutionality of Proposition 8 in California, which bans same-sex marriage in the state. Windsor challenges the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which denies same-sex couples equal protection under federal law.

There’s no way to predict what the Supreme Court will do in Perry and Windsor, but the national tide of public opinion is clearly moving toward allowing same-sex couples to wed.

As the communications director for Mainers United for Marriage, which successfully brought a citizens initiative to allow same-sex couples to marry, I saw firsthand the process by which folks changed their minds.

They worked with someone who was gay or had met the lesbian couple down the street through their kids. They had a son or daughter, grandson or cousin, niece or nephew who had talked to them about why marriage matters to all loving, committed couples. And they started to understand that same-sex couples want to get married for similar reasons as other couples.

And through those conversations, honest and personal, undecided or skeptical voters changed their minds.

They empathized.

The “us” versus “them” faded, and the shared humanity that connects us all came through. In November, voters approved same-sex marriage in Maine, Washington state and Maryland. And an attempt to write discrimination into the Minnesota Constitution failed.

Regardless of how the justices rule, support will continue to grow for same-sex marriage. Because now, it’s impossible to ignore the subject, to keep thoughts about our co-workers, neighbors, friends and families separated from thoughts about fairness, justice and love.

Those common values – and making sure that they apply to the people we know and love – will carry the day.

Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer lived together for more than 44 years, marrying in Canada in 2007. Through their four decades together, Windsor and Spyer were married in all ways except for under the law, which treated them as legal strangers. After battling multiple sclerosis with Windsor by her side, Spyer died in 2009. Her wife inherited her estate, but because of DOMA, Windsor was forced to pay federal inheritance tax that other married couples avoid.

It’s a story of long love, commitment through good times and bad, through health, sickness and ultimately death. And it’s a story of unfairness and discrimination.

Now the world has heard the story, and there’s no way to go back and un-hear it. We know Edith Windsor. And that makes a difference.

If the Supreme Court strikes down DOMA, the lives of thousands of married couples in Maine will change for the better.

And if it doesn’t, if the justices punt on a decision or craft some narrow ruling, recognition for loving, committed same-sex couples and their families will still continue to grow.

When President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, I didn’t recognize the impact the law would have. The notion of same-sex couples being able to marry seemed a long way off.

As New York Times reporter Peter Baker describes, Clinton chose to relent to political pressure. Returning to the White House, late in the night after a campaign swing, Clinton signed the bill without fanfare and with little notice. “Mr. Clinton considered it a gay-baiting measure, but was unwilling to risk re-election by vetoing it,” Baker writes.

Over time, Clinton has moved away from DOMA and now says he believes the act is unconstitutional.

Seventeen years ago, DOMA came down to one man’s decision: to sign or not.

Now it may come down to two others, with Chief Justice John Roberts or Justice Anthony Kennedy the likely swing votes on the court.

But this time, it’s not the middle of the night; the world is watching; and we all know what’s at stake.

And sitting in the courtroom will be Jean Podrasky, Roberts’ first cousin and a lesbian who would like to marry her partner in California.

Podrasky told the Los Angeles Times she doesn’t know Roberts’ position on marriage or whether having a lesbian family member would influence his decision.

“Everybody knows somebody” who is gay, she told reporter Maura Dolan. “It probably impacts everybody.”

I have hope that the Supreme Court will do the right thing in these two cases. But I am convinced that either way we’re never going back. DOMA and bans like Proposition 8 are doomed.

Either this year or next year or 10 years from now. It’s only a matter of time before fairness, justice and love win out.