Gay Rights Activists’ Infectious Optimism

Posted March 27, 2013 at 1:32pm

The mood in front of the Supreme Court was buoyant Wednesday morning, as hundreds of demonstrators supporting same-sex marriage showed up to rally for a second straight day.

Inside the building, the court’s nine justices were hearing oral arguments on the second of two landmark cases on marriage rights. Tuesday’s case was a challenge to California’s Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage, and Wednesday’s case was a challenge to part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Unlike Tuesday, when hundreds of same-sex marriage opponents marched in front of the court and sparred with marriage equality advocates, Wednesday’s rally was almost exclusively populated by those hoping that the justices will issue a historic ruling on gay rights.

They milled about, many with colorful and witty signs, expressing a sense of hope that the court would overturn a provision of DOMA that says the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriages awarded by state governments.

DOMA was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, but many members who once supported the law have since changed their stance and now stand in support of same-sex marriage.

Members of Congress, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the first openly gay senator in history, watched the arguments inside the court. The crowd erupted into cheers, chanting “Tammy, Tammy” when Baldwin walked down the court’s iconic steps after arguments ended.

But the biggest cheers came for Edie Windsor, the plaintiff in the DOMA case.

A lesbian from New York, Windsor married her wife, Thea Spyer, in Toronto in 2007. When Spyer died in 2009, after 42 years with Windsor, Windsor was forced to pay hundreds of thousands in estate taxes on her inheritance from her wife. Even though New York state recognized the marriage, DOMA did not permit federal recognition. Had Windsor and Spyer been a man and a woman, the law would have allowed Windsor to inherit her spouse’s estate without paying federal estate taxes.

Windsor sued the federal government, saying DOMA is unconstitutional, and she was present Wednesday at the oral arguments.

“It went beautifully. I think the justices were gentle,” Windsor told reporters after exiting the court. “I didn’t feel any hostility or any sense of inferiority.”

Preliminary reports from the oral arguments say DOMA is in peril, as a majority of the justices questioned its constitutionality.

The court is expected to hand down rulings on both cases when its session ends in June.