When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the absurdly named Defense of Marriage Act last week, the lives of thousands of families in Maine instantly got better.
Throughout New England, in New York, Maryland, Minnesota, Iowa, D.C., Delaware, Washington and, especially perhaps, in California thousands of loving, committed couples heard – loud and clear and finally – that their government views their marriages as worthy of respect and protection of the law.
DOMA, which became law in 1996, denied federal recognition to same-sex couples even in states that recognize their unions.
Writing for the majority of the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy tore away the fiction that had allowed the law to stand: “DOMA writes inequality into the entire United States Code,” he said simply.
Kennedy continued: “DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others.”
The opinion makes it clear that the majority of the court saw clearly the truth: DOMA was built on fear, spite and injustice and it could not withstand constitutional scrutiny.
“The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment. This opinion and its holding are confined to those lawful marriages,” wrote Kennedy.
The ruling was a long time coming and was made possible by the hard work, tireless effort and unending faith of thousands of people who believed enough in their neighbors, in their states and in their country to imagine a day when all people could marry the person they love.
They toiled at a time when the freedom to marry couldn’t even count as a dream. It was a fantasy. And time again, with one step forward came two steps back.
In 2008, Prop 8, a California ballot initiative, overturned a state court ruling that allowed couples to marry.
In 2009, voters overturned Maine’s same-sex marriage law, passed earlier that year and signed by Gov. John Baldacci.
In North Carolina and states around the country, voters rejected same-sex marriage. Opponents of the freedom to marry, before 2012, loved to cite a terrible statistic. When put before voters, marriage for same-sex couples was 32-0.
There were many dark days during those years. But they were never hopeless.
And then, last year things changed. Maine became the first state in the country where the people voted to legalize marriage between same-sex couples, followed closely by Maryland and Washington. And Minnesota turned away an attempt to write discrimination into the state constitution.
After Election Day, the tide kept rolling in Rhode Island, Delaware and Minnesota.
Illinois came close to joining the club already and it’s only a matter of time there. Hawaii’s governor supports the freedom to marry and supporters are working through both the Legislature and the courts.
And work is already well underway in Oregon for a campaign in 2014.
Other states, including Colorado, Michigan, Ohio, Arizona and New Mexico are taking stock and counting votes and will soon make decisions about the timeline that gives them the best chance for success. For some, that means waiting until 2016, and maybe even longer.
But here’s the thing. With all the progress, with all the growth, with the Supreme Court ruling and the national poll numbers and growing acceptances, millions of gays and lesbians still live in places that say that their love doesn’t count.
They can be fired, denied housing, and turned away. They are told their families are lesser. They face hatred and discrimination enshrined in law.
They see the world changing, but not for them. Not yet.
In places like my home state of Virginia and in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and the rest of the Old South, in Oklahoma, Idaho and Wyoming, the joy of last week and of the string of success is tempered by the reality.
We are still along way away from the day when every loving, committed couple can marry.
To get to there will require that thousands of people talk to their friends and neighbors about why marriage matters to them.
Grandmas and college students, veterans and clergy, parents and doctors will have to work the phones, and knock on doors, and write to newspapers and tell their stories.
And it will take those of us who live in the states that allow marriage to stay in the fight, to tell the story about how our states have become stronger and that the horror stories told by marriage opponents didn’t come true.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote a scathing dissent to the DOMA ruling for the Supreme Court, knows the day is coming, perhaps through the courts: “I promise you this: The only thing that will ‘confine’ the Court’s holding is its sense of what it can get away with.”
It’s cold comfort for those who are being asked to wait, but the day is coming.
David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. He was the communications director for Mainers United for Marriage, which successfully advocated for same-sex marriage in Maine and is a volunteer for U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud’s gubernatorial exploratory committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.