My friend, among my oldest and dearest—a pessimistic realist attorney—was crying quietly in the corner. Half an hour earlier she showed up at the courthouse saying, “It’s not gonna happen.” And I told her, “Today, I need you to be hopeful and optimistic. Because I am.”
When the judge read his verdict, the room was stunned. A small family court room, back bench crammed with a few close friends and family—who stepped in at various times to entertain our kids. In the bustle of the past 24 hours, we had forgotten to bring them anything to play with.
This day barely happened at all. Our oldest child (at six) had their second concussion the previous afternoon and was throwing up in the Emergency Department. Our out-of-state civil rights attorney got—through some incredible electronic glitch—locked in her hotel room, had to be rescued through the window by a maintenance worker, and just barely made it to court.
She sat at the front table with us, our local lawyer, our social worker, and our two bored children. The judge ruled and the room fell into a deep silence. In truth, I think we were all holding our collective breath, wondering if it was real and what to do next. Until the social worker called out, “Photos!” She ushered me, my wife and kids up to the bench and took pictures of us with the judge. He didn’t smile or speak. I shook his hand and said, quietly, “Thank you, sir.” He knew what he had just done. Made history. Made progress.
After, the small meeting room our lawyer had commandeered exploded with excitement. My steely friend wept quietly. The audacity of our hope had paid off. In our conservative state, my wife and I were the first same-sex couple to both be legal parents to our children. We weren’t allowed to tell anyone, because we all knew our reactionary state legislature would quickly respond with laws to negate it if it made the news.
But understand… this didn’t happen overnight, even for us personally. Setting aside for a minute the decades of work done by our predecessors for LGBTQIA2+ rights, we had just spent two years jumping through hoops, including a home evaluation by our social worker (who I found intimidating at first), letters of support from our parents, minister, preschool director and others, meetings with a team of attorneys from around the country, and far more. And it might not have paid off at all. This judge could have decided he didn’t want to be the first, didn’t want to rock the boat, risk not getting re-elected to the bench.
We got a sheaf of papers to prove our new status: two birth certificates that included me and not just my wife, other documents making our bond as a family official. It took weeks to get updated birth certificates because they had to change the entire template for us: Parent 1 and Parent 2 instead of Mother and Father. Just papers, but what they represented was monumental. We weren’t allowed to get married yet in our state, and these papers meant our family wouldn’t be at risk—that even if something happened to my wife, my kids couldn’t be taken away from me.
We’ve spent nearly ten years feeling confident about our family’s security in the eyes of the law. We even managed to get married about eight years ago, when the IRS said we could file joint federal taxes if we were legally married anywhere in the country, even if it wasn’t recognized in our own state.
Next spring, we’ll have been together for 20 years. And our heroine of the High Court has passed the torch on to the rest of us, some of whom were already carrying our own small flames. But with the current rush to install a conservative Supreme Court justice, all of the work we’ve done may be in jeopardy. The work of each civil rights movement may be turned under like last year’s garden: the blooms of queer, disability, and women’s rights, the sun-kissed fruits of Black, indigenous, Latinx, people of color, immigrant and refugee rights, torn down and paved over. Like the paradise in some folk song we were all trying to perfect, off-key as it might have been.
Our family will still be together. Our children are still minors. We will do our best to ensure our legal affairs are all in order. We will pray nothing happens to either of us. But most of all, we will fight tooth and claw, word and action, shoulder to shoulder with our BIPOC, trans, and disabled siblings to restore and maintain not just the promise, but a reality of liberty and justice for all.
Elyse Arring is an editor for TRR.