Moments like the one that happened on Wednesday afternoon at the corner of 10th and Piedmont in Atlanta are why I’m proud to be an American. I don’t love this country because we always make the right decisions or because every single day we live out our creed of freedom and justice for all. I love America because we are constantly reminded by the most neglected and denigrated of our citizenry that what we have can be perfect.
There were hundreds of people at 10th and Piedmont that day, some sitting in the outdoor section of the corner restaurant, others in adjacent air conditioned buildings, but most were on the sidewalks of the four-way intersection jumping, cheering and waving to the thousands of men and women who drove by honking in support.
It never grew beyond a couple hundred people, and that would be pushing it, but the sight on each of those street corners is about the closest I’ve ever seen to pure, unadulterated and unencumbered bliss.
There was hope and excitement expressed by the impromptu celebration, but more than anything there was joy.
“We have so often been on the losing end of legislative battles, of court decisions,” Jeff Graham, Executive Director of Georgia Equality told me. “So for us to have a victory where we can come together and really celebrate is a wonderful feeling. And I think that you can feel that with the people that are here, but also the show of support of people honking their horns, we really do have history on our side, justice on our side.”
The location had been chosen with purpose. The corner of 10th and Piedmont has been where Atlanta’s gay community has come to celebrate its triumphs since the Georgia Supreme Court struck down the state’s law against sodomy in 1999, essentially giving gay men the right to have sex legally. It was the place where on June 26, 2003, they had gone to celebrate Lawrence v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court case that made same-sex sexual activity legal in every state in the union.
It was also the place the community came to commiserate in 2004, when Georgia passed Amendment 1 by an overwhelming 76 percent majority, making it unconstitutional for the state to recognize or perform same-sex marriages or even civil unions.
Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision did nothing to change that law and the juxtaposition of the hope for tomorrow and the reality of today was summarized perfectly by Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens in a short statement he sent to the press that day.
“I disagree with the Court’s decision,” he wrote. “But it is important to understand what the decision does and does not mean. The decision does not affect existing state definitions of marriage; in fact, it explicitly says that it is limited to marriages recognized by states as lawful. The definition of marriage adopted by Georgia’s voters is unaffected by today’s decision.”
He was right. While the United States Supreme Court had struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and a provision in California’s Proposition 8, for everyone celebrating on the street corner that day in Atlanta, Georgia, absolutely nothing had changed.
But somehow everything had.
“I’m really excited to be here,” said Alexander Brown, a lawyer from Bagwell & Associates, who was handing out copies of the Supreme Court’s full opinion in United States v. Windsor, the case that struck down DOMA. “This is just a great day. I woke up just thinking this was gonna be another week day. I never figured I’d be some place like this celebrating something like this and it’s just really amazing.”
Brown said that he’d spent most of his day fielding calls from friends and family about what the Supreme Court’s ruling really meant.
“I think that the next big case that we’re gonna see come up on this issue is someone challenging a state constitutional amendment banning marriage like the one that Georgia has,” he said. “And when that makes it to the Supreme Court hopefully that [ruling] will come down the same way that this one did.”
Tony Kearney, a 48-year-old man standing on the streets holding up the rainbow pride flag, had a ready response to the question of how far Georgia still had to go.
“You’re asking a Black man that?” he said. “Our local government is way behind the times, so as long as we have the leadership we have things may not ever…it’ll take a lot longer than the rest of the nation.”
And maybe it would. But watching the men and women on those corners reminded me of the block parties I’d driven by in South Central Los Angeles when Barack Obama was first elected President of the United States. For everyone celebrating, nothing had changed. African Americans were afforded no more rights, privileges or powers, but that election was like an affirmation that we were equal, that in America we could do anything.
It took me a while to understand that the fight for gay marriage was about the same thing. It has never actually been about the right to check the box four inches to the right on a 1040 or to file income taxes jointly. The fight for marriage equality is about the declaration of equal opportunity from the highest authority possible. It’s about having the acceptance of a nation to be who you are and be with the one you love forever in legal, state-sanctioned matrimony.
“If people could see how happy everyone was and the diversity of this group of folks, they would know that this is a feeling, a sentiment, that’s in everybody’s heart and it’s gonna keep spreading,” said Andrew Dickens, who held up a red, white and blue sign that read “We Have a Dream Too.”
Having been through my own evolution on gay marriage, I wished that people like Olens, Gov. Nathan Deal and the countless others around the country who oppose same-sex marriage could have been there to see the scene on 10th and Piedmont. It would have changed them. Maybe not in their votes and maybe not in their actions, but no one could look at that wave of people cheering, weeping, chanting and singing, all in the name of moving one step closer to being considered equal, and not be moved. It was harrowing and heartwarming all at once.
I have to admit I was a bit jealous. I could only imagine their joy. It was a great day, a powerful, wonderful, exciting and magical day to be gay in Georgia. And let’s be honest, there haven’t been that many.