WASHINGTON – Chants calling for equality rang out across the front steps of the Supreme Court Wednesday, as marriage equality supporters gathered to wave American flags and carry colorful signs while the court inside heard a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act.
Music blared over loudspeakers, and at one point the crowd began singing the national anthem. Many carried signs with messages like, “Sexuality is genetic, bigotry is a lifestyle,” and “Don’t make me choose between my love for my wife & my love for my country.”
Wednesday marked the second day of demonstrations outside the court on same-sex marriage issues — supporters also gathered Tuesday in opposition to Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage in California, while the court considered arguments on that law.
Under DOMA, same-sex married couples lack federal benefits, and other states are not forced to recognize their marriage. The DOMA challenge was brought by Edie Windsor, a New York woman who could not receive a federal estate tax exemption after her spouse died.
Virginia residents Heather Trout and Andrea Martens, who have been together for more than 11 years and married in Boston in 2009, said the atmosphere of the rally was exhilarating.
“It’s awesome. There’s probably more straight people here than gay people,” Trout said. “It’s amazing; it’s probably the first time I’ve seen this many straight allies.”
She and Martens have attended numerous gay pride demonstrations over the years, Trout said, but the contrast between similar events in the 1990s and Wednesday’s show of support was palpable.
“It was just a feeling of being surrounded, minimalized, it was a fearful thing,” she said. “Now, it’s hopeful. It almost makes me cry.”
As demonstrators posed for pictures and distributed American flags, many said they were confident the court would overturn DOMA because of a shift to acceptance and tolerance in American culture.
“I know it will change. I grew up gay in the deep South,” said Alex Brewer, a Washington resident. “Now, my cousins chose to go to college there because it has become more accepting.”
Brewer said his parents traveled from Tennessee to hear the arguments, and managed to get a seat in the court.
Many of those who attended with signs, banners or flyers, however, didn’t need to travel far.
Kristina Kissiova, a Baltimore native and sophomore at George Washington University, said she was missing class for the chance to participate in the rally. Kissiova said she became passionate about advocating for equality after she began attending college in Washington.
“I went to a small Catholic high school, so I only saw one side of it,” she said. “It’s exciting just seeing everyone with their signs. I was hoping there’d be more opposition.”
Although members of the Westboro Baptist Church, an anti-gay Kansas organization known for picketing military funerals, were spotted early in the day, several demonstrators said most opponents of same-sex marriage left the area.
However, Virginia resident James Manship drew some attention from passersby due to his outfit — Manship was dressed as George Washington and carried a large flag with the words “Appeal to Heaven” written on it.
Manship said the court should not review same-sex marriage, adding the repeal of DOMA could lead to an “unraveling” of American society.
Maryland voters passed a referendum legalizing same-sex marriage in November, and eight other states, along with Washington, D.C., also allow it. However, same-sex couples who marry still lack federal benefits, which led Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to suggest that DOMA creates “two classes” of marriage, according to a Washington Post news article.
A majority of justices appeared doubtful about DOMA’s constitutionality during Wednesday’s arguments, the Post reported.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, likely the deciding vote, “questioned whether the federal government may impose its own view of marriage, which was ‘always thought to be’ the domain of the state,” according to the Post.
Federal benefits that same-sex couples are denied under DOMA include insurance benefits for federal workers, joint tax filing and Social Security survivor benefits.
With the repeal of the law, same-sex couples would have the same legal rights as heterosexual couples, a decision Virginia resident Laura Pfitzner said she can now only hope for.
Pfitzner — who held a sign saying “Give my child my rights” — said her son is engaged to an Army soldier who fought in Iraq and who came out as gay three months before the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which forbade openly gay citizens to serve in the armed forces.
“I can hope and pray, and I can march and talk and educate,” she said.
Several demonstrators, including Washington residents Jason Hata, of the Japanese-American Citizens League, and Kendall Kosai, of the Organization of Chinese Americans, compared the fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered equality with the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“The Asian-American community is fairly progressive,” Kosai said. “There are lots of parallels with the civil rights movement to stand up for justice for everyone.”
And while many supporters said they want the nation as a whole to embrace same-sex marriage, Brewer said giving individual states a say in the matter could lead to more positive change.
“I hope it remains a state issue for a while,” Brewer said. “If we force gay marriage on states that aren’t ready yet, there will be a stronger backlash.”
By LAUREN KIRKWOOD and ANAMIKA ROY