At the Supreme Court, waiting for history

Video: The Supreme Court handed down major victories for gay marriage. The Post’s Robert Barnes breaks down the DOMA and Proposition 8 decisions from the courthouse steps.

There are these runners, who surge out of the Supreme Court when a major ruling is announced. Television cameras aren’t allowed inside; the runners, some in suits paired with Nikes, work for networks. They sprint from a small door in the front of the building across the stone plaza to the banks of cameras on the grass, and they tell reporters what just happened inside, and all of this is a workaround meant to diminish waiting.

All week long, they’ve been running. Sweaty-headed 20-somethings. Running for adoption rulings. Running for voting rights rulings. Running for pharmaceutical rulings. Running, because the minute it might take for the Supreme Court to update its Web site is too long to wait to find out whether history has changed, and how, and for whom. Running like varsity track stars, like CNN might hire interns based on 50-meter splits.

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On Wednesday morning, the temperature was 88 but felt like 93, and the sun was bare and searing, and the crowds were lobstering before one’s eyes, turning pink and glistening as they waited to hear the Supreme Court’s rulings on DOMA and Prop. 8 — two clinical abbreviations that have come to stand for marriage rights in the United States.

Here in the crowd, there were two older women who said they were already married in their hearts and had been for years, and were waiting on the Defense of Marriage Act ruling to decide whether to make it legal. “Ten years from now, people will look back on this and say, ‘So what? What was the big deal? Why did anyone care who got married?’ ” said one partner, Deb Gardiner. “It’s like racial discrimination. It seems shocking now, but at one time it was accepted.”

Here in the crowd were two young women whose sign said they were newlyweds and who appeared to be barely out of their teens, just the right age to make the face-first leap into matrimony that young people have been making for centuries, while older relatives look on and cross their fingers. The pavilion in front of the court was sardine-packed with supporters who occasionally erupted in cheers that felt more like nervous expulsions of energy. The decisions were scheduled to be announced at 10 a.m.

It was 9:27.

It was 9:34.

What do we want? Equality! the crowd yelled. When do we want it? Now!

People thought the gay marriage decisions would be handed down last Thursday, and then definitely Monday, and certainly Tuesday. Lawyers unpacked and repacked their suitcases. Ted Olson, one of the big names representing the Proposition 8 plaintiffs, finally had to head out of state for another case. Some supporters kept returning to the steps, every morning, as the temperatures climbed, as “now” began to seem like something that could be conjured (Supreme Court: Make your ruling. 1-2-3-Now!).

One such supporter was Vin Testa, a high school math teacher on his summer break. Every day this week, he brought a big rainbow flag that he would wave above his head in a steady, rhythmic pattern. Every day, tourists photographed him, asked what he was doing there. “I’m here for all of my LGBT brothers and sisters,” he would say.

Finally, on Wednesday, it was Now. The event of a Supreme Court ruling brings with it the odd quality of permitting people to know precisely when their lives might change. It’s destiny by appointment — it’s punctual kismet.

It was 9:42.

It was 9:51.

The Supreme Court can feel like an abstract entity, except on days such as Wednesday, when it felt like an address and a destination. The place to go so one could remember being there, waving a “Married With Pride” posterboard, singing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” The period at the end of a long sentence, containing lots of proper names such as Stonewall and Ellen DeGeneres.

Television reporters, lined up in the grass, kept tossing coverage back to Matt and Savannah, or back to Wolf, or back to whichever anchors are back in air-conditioned studios. The readers on the SCOTUS blog, which efficiently updated its coverage minute-by-minute, ballooned from 50,000 to 200,000.

“It has been a long wait,” acknowledged David Baker, a neatly pressed Mormon standing behind a sign reading “Gay Mormons for Marriage Equality.” “But we’ve been waiting for 40 years.”

Folks from the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organization, have made a small, standing camp a few paces from the CNN umbrellas. They have all put in earpieces and dialed into a conference call with their California counterparts, lawyers and specialists ready to chop through the meaning of the opinions, line by line.

They have seven different press releases ready. One for every permutation.

“All right,” one of them whispers. “It’s 10.”

1-2-3-Now! 1-2-3-Now! 1-2-3 . . .

And the doors flew open, and instead of a suit-wearing runner, it was Vin Testa, the high school math teacher who had been in front of the court every morning waving his rainbow flag. He burst out of the court and huffed across the pavement, and he was fast, but not in a practiced way. He ran like you would expect a math teacher to run. He was running not toward the bank of television cameras, but to the waiting crowd, and halfway there he ripped off his shirt, and underneath was a neon pink tank top, and the crowd cheered, and tears ran down red, sunburned faces.

Emotions translated into platitudes, as tongue-knotted celebrators spoke out loud the quotations of speakers who are more eloquent than they are. The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.

It was 10:02.

The thing about waiting is that as soon as you’re finished, you’re not really. History marches on, and the things that looked like endpoints in other times — Lawrence v. Texas, decided exactly a decade ago, the 2012 ballot victories in Maryland, Maine and Washington — now look like benchmarks.

Amid the throngs of supporters, Brian Brown, a beefy guy with reddish hair and sweat beads pooling around his collared shirt and tie, was camera- and sound-bite-ready to insist that the DOMA ruling wasn’t a defeat for his group, the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage. “The court did not rule that there’s a constitutional right to redefine marriage,” he tells a reporter. “There’s no right to gay marriage.”

A young woman in a purple sleeveless “Pride” T-shirt jumps in. “No, you lost, dude. You pretty much did.”

He’s not angry. Moments after the court has said no to a key element of Prop. 8, which was one of his signal achievements, Brown concedes only: “This is a wake-up call. Clearly, we have work to do.”

Over by another bank of microphones, Chad Griffin, HRC executive director, also has plans for more work. He stood with the four plaintiffs in Perry v. Hollingsworth and prepares to make a statement. “Within five years, we will bring marriage equality to all 50 states,” he says, and it’s another something for the crowd to wait for.

Paul Farhi contributed to this report.

 
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