June 26th, 2015 starts out as a regular Friday. At my summer internship at a financial fraud firm in Midtown East, Manhattan, I try to finish my work early so I can leave by 3 p.m., as I’ve done for five of the past six Fridays, but all I can manage is to listen to the fluorescent lights hum. I’m hungover. With a heavy sigh and a hand on my forehead, I go to open my project for the day. Just then, a friend texts me: “We won.” It takes a minute to register. I’d had a feeling the decision might come today, but I shrug, stand up, and walk to the office kitchen to make tea. My head hurts.
I walk back to my desk, a small cubicle, and sit down inside the wall with my name (misspelled) on a temporary laminated sign. I stare at the icon under my cursor, “Anti-Money Laundering,” and decide to check the news instead. I scroll past the soaring rhetoric and indignant vitriol — nothing I haven’t read before. The other summer intern walks past my desk. “We won,” I say without inflection. “It was five to four.” She smiles and sits down at her computer. Then, I see Nic, an analyst, and the news starts to feel more urgent. “You and I can finally get married,” I yell to him from across the room. He shifts in place, his eyes darting between the rows of people seated between us. “Yeah, let’s go right now,” he says with a forced laugh. No one looks up from their screens, and I sit back down at my desk. The fluorescent lights hum.
Still a little groggy, I check Facebook on my phone and watch a video of the spectators waiting to hear the decision outside the Supreme Court. “I’m so scared,” a voice says off camera, “I’m shaking.” Then the crowd erupts around two women, who start hugging. The one facing the camera has her eyes shut tight behind rectangular glasses, her left hand pressing her partner’s head against her own, the other holding a sign: Be Proud. A demonstrator with a rainbow bandana around her neck smiles and speaks into a microphone: “We weren’t sure. We weren’t at all sure, but how could you not be here for this?”
I turn back to the other intern. “I should’ve gone down to D.C. for the announcement,” I tell her, the first sentence of the day I haven’t mumbled. “Yeah,” she replies, “but you didn’t know when it was going to be. It’s not like you’re gonna take a whole week off of work.” If I’d really wanted, I could’ve asked for the time off and forfeited my $19 an hour, but I nod my head and shrug. “That Scalia sure is a piece of shit,” I say. She smiles again.
Ten minutes later, the caffeine hits me. I minimize the anti-money laundering report and scroll through Twitter. Slowly, the abstractions start to feel personal again, as if Lady GaGa’s “#LoveWins over prejudice" tweet is talking about me and my love winning. I start to imagine how I'll celebrate with Hany, my boyfriend of a year. We haven't talked about marriage, not even as a joke, so the decision doesn't feel particularly urgent, but I'm still excited to share the moment with him.
My boss calls me over. A week earlier, I’d heard him shout across the office, “I can’t believe Bruce Jenner went through with it! I thought he was doing it all for the publicity.”
Nic and I stand in front of his desk. “Did you hear the news?” he asks, grinning at the prospect of being the first to tell us. We nod. He shrugs, raises both eyebrows, and leans back in his chair. “I mean, this should’ve happened 20 years ago. Maybe now we can stop talking about it.” An hour ago, I would’ve agreed with him: of course this is long overdue, but something’s changed. Though we’ve just become equal, matrimonially speaking, I feel like that difference between us has never been more important.
I look at Nic. He’s wearing the same grin as our boss. I look at the intern, staring at her screen, the other employees, silently typing away. I think about the woman with the rainbow bandana: We weren’t sure. We weren’t sure at all. The fluorescent lights still hum.
“Can I leave?” I say with a suddenness that surprises all three of us.
“Leave now?” my boss asks, frowning. I nod, excited to see his demeanor change so quickly, as if I have the upper hand
“Are you going to Stonewall?” Nic asks.
My boss’s frown deepens. “What’s Stonewall?”
In the 1960s, the Stonewall Inn was one of the few gay bars in Manhattan. To get in, patrons either had to “look gay” or know the bouncer, who scrutinized them from behind a peephole. The mafia operated the bar, overcharged for drinks, and blackmailed the wealthier customers. When the police raided Stonewall, which they did often, but always with a warning to management first, they took all the patrons dressed as women to the bathroom and examined their genitals. The male “transvestites,” women not deemed feminine enough, and customers without proper identification were arrested, photographed, and sometimes featured in the newspaper the following day.
As I walk out of the office lobby, I text a group of straight friends. They’re supportive but don’t feel compelled to leave work at 11 a.m.. I text a gay acquaintance from college (“I’ll get fired if I leave now”) and a drag queen I met when we were both living in Iowa City (“Let me know how it is.”) I call Hany, who’s in Boston to negotiate a case and won’t be back until that night.
“Did you see the news?” I ask, the phone to my ear as I walk downtown.
“Just did,” he whispers, and I hear him close a door. “We should get married when I’m back in the city.”
I laugh. “You just want a green card before they deport you back to Jordan,” I tease him.
“Are you at lunch right now?”
“Actually, I’m on my way to Stonewall.”
“Wait, you just left work?” he asks, incredulous.
“Yeah,” I say, my pitch rising at the end, until I remember my boss’s grin. “Yeah,” I say again, crisply. “Of course I just left.” On Hany’s end, I hear the door open again, and a voice.
“I gotta go, Babe,” he says to me. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Through Instagram, I see that a friend is already at Stonewall. I call her and am surprised when she tells me she’s next to the pool table at the back. I guess the mobs of celebrants haven’t arrived yet. From Midtown East, I cut west and walk down Fifth Avenue, following the route of the annual pride march that will happen in two days, the same route as the original in 1970.
As I approach Stonewall, the only people I see are the dozens of TV reporters using the bar as a backdrop. A few people speak into cameras. Others take pictures. A man dressed in a wedding gown stands by himself, clutches a rose, and smiles demurely when asked for an interview, as if the thought had never crossed his mind. Another man leaving the bar sees the crowd and starts to chant: “About eff-ing time! About eff-ing time!” We stare. “Come on,” he yells, pumping his fist and still hesitant to say fuck, “About eff-ing time!” We continue staring, and eventually he drops his fist and walks away.
I take a picture of the facade and caption it with #PrideIsAProtest.” I consider adding that I just left my job, that it was the “epicenter of heteronormative apathy” but decide against it. Since some of my Facebook friends might not know I’m gay, especially the ones I met living in Egypt, this feels transgressive enough, like an act of defiance and not merely an excuse to leave work early and get drunk.
I walk inside. The Stonewall Inn has recently been designated a national landmark, and commemorative t-shirts and tank tops hang above the bar for $20 a piece. Loud pop music plays, but the only three dancing do so on a small stage up front. They’re off the beat — drunk already? I think — and move their hips in suggestive, hyperbolic curves. As I pass by, one grabs another’s waist and drops to the ground. He’s in his early 20s and wearing a black polo, gray shorts, and boat shoes. Above high cheekbones, his light blue eyes flicker down to my dress shoes and then up, to the khakis, the tucked-in Oxford, the hair gelled back. Our eyes meet, and I smile. He throws his head back and continues dancing.
By the pool table, I find my friend, whose boyfriend I know from college, and she introduces me to her boss at HSBC. I want to hug him, to scream “We did it!” but instead I shake his hand. He introduces me to his fiancé. “Wait,” I say, smiling, “you guys didn’t just…” They both laugh. “Oh no, we’ve had this planned for months.” I nod. “A vineyard in Sonoma,” they say in unison.
On my way to the bathroom, I see a heavy-set woman with short, spiked hair. She looks to be in her late forties, wearing glasses, cargo shorts, and a baggy black t-shirt, and for a moment, I think she’s in the wrong bar. When I remember why we’re both here, at Stonewall, I hug her. “We did it,” I say. “We did it,” she says, smiling. I don’t know what else I want to say to her, or her to me, but I want us to keep talking. I wonder what her life was like when she was my age, what she wore and how she did her hair. I wonder if her parents knew, what her friends said, what it was like when she was younger and straight women around her kept getting married. I wonder what she thinks about Stonewall now. She pats my shoulder and walks past me.
Around 1p.m., another friend of Katie’s shows up, and I hug him. “Oh, you two already know each other?” she asks. “No,” I say, stepping further back than necessary. “It just seemed like the thing to do.” To break the silence, I gesture around me. “These must be all the gays in the city without jobs,” I say, a line I’ve already used on Katie to minimal effect. The group smiles politely. I head to the bar and order another Bud Light. “Six dollars,” the bartender says as he takes another order.
“It was just three,” I shout. He’s ten feet away.
“Happy hour’s over.”
“This isn’t a happy hour?” I say, gesturing toward the men lounging against the pool table and gawking at the dancers up front. “Today isn’t a celebration?”
“Sorry, six dollars.”
Ten minutes later, Katie and I leave. It had been cloudy when I walked downtown, but now, the summer sun is at its strongest, and before my eyes adjust, everything glows: the taxi parked out front, the windows across the street, the woman pushing a stroller down the sidewalk. If it weren’t for the bride still giving interviews and posing for pictures, it’d be easy to believe I’d just finished Sunday brunch. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I decided to leave work — a citywide day of silence? — but I wait a moment before catching up to Katie. As we walk to the subway, I stumble in front of a man in a suit walking toward me. He turns his head, scrunches his face, and eyes the rainbow flag I now have in my breast pocket. He emits a tiny puff of air through his nose.
Before we go underground, a text from Hany: Now we can be legally gay married from Alabama to Alaska.
Married, I correct him, not gay married.
“Congratulations,” my friends say when they show up at my apartment an hour later. I want to tell them that all I’ve done is go to a bar, but instead, I complain that my boss had never heard of Stonewall. “Just say it,” I command to his imaginary persona while we drink in my courtyard. “Just say you picture two guys fucking and it makes you want to throw up.”
My friend scrunches her brow. “Wait, what?” she says. “Didn’t he let you leave work before noon?” I sigh and roll my eyes. “You don’t understand,” I say, emphasizing the you. “It was just, like,” I pause for a second, searching for a familiar phrase, “this epicenter of heteronormative apathy.” While I shake my head and keep drinking, I notice my friends exchanging skeptical glances, which gives me a smug satisfaction.
Even though the moment still doesn’t feel mine, it certainly isn’t theirs, these friends of mine who are, I argue to myself, almost as clueless as my boss. If they were gay, or, even better, gay and impatient to get married, then the decision might feel formative. Even if I couldn’t connect with this landmark case, at least then I could borrow their enthusiasm, or, at the very least, try to explain how detached I feel. But they aren’t gay, any of them, so I take solace in hoarding the indignation for myself.
“I talked to my mom earlier,” says another friend whose mother is a congresswoman from New Hampshire. “She said to give you her congratulations.” I’m flattered, but I don’t want them to have the satisfaction of knowing that. I turn back to the group and try to hide my grin. “She did?”
Hany and I kiss on the sidewalk outside the hotel in the Lower East Side. It’s 8 p.m., and we both look haggard, me because I’ve been drinking for hours, him because, for the past week, he’s worked three times as many hours as he’s slept. Ninety minutes ago, he landed at LaGuardia and changed out of his suit. He’s now wearing black jeans and a button-down, always size medium, always too tight on the shoulders and chest. I’m wearing one of his black polos.
“How’d you guys celebrate in Boston?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “What do you mean?”
“Like, what did your co-workers say when they found out?”
“Nothing, really. I tried to bring it up, but they didn’t seem interested.”
“Oh.” I nod my head gravely. I’m about to ask why he didn’t just leave, when his friend walks up. We go into a tequila tasting event.
Hany hasn’t had anything to drink yet, so he and his friend take a couple of shots while I look for food. All I find is a Patron Popsicle. When I come back, they’re talking to Andrew, a Harvard Law grad who had given Hany our $180 tickets to the event. Apropos of nothing, I turn to him. “I think it’s really fucked up how nine ostensibly straight people decided whether we get the right to marry or not,” I say. Hany’s friend looks surprised, but Andrew nods judiciously and adds, “That’s the dynamic with all the big cases, though: Brown v. Board, Roe v. Wade…”
“Yeah,” I interrupt, “but this just never should’ve been an issue to begin with.”
“Neither should have slavery,” he says calmly. I bite my popsicle, and everyone stares at the floor. Hany and his friend chug their drinks, shake the ice in their glasses, and leave to get refills. I look back at Andrew. “It’s just — how are Clarence Thomas and I reading the same constitution?”
“I haven’t read his dissent yet,” Andrew says, as steady if he were holding office hours, “but historically, states have been free to regulate marriage on their own.”
“But what about Bowers v Hardwick?” I say, referencing a case I read about earlier at work, where a man in Georgia was arrested for having consensual gay sex in his own home. Andrew tilts his head. “Bowers was about sodomy, but yeah, I guess there’s a connection.”
“Anti-sodomy laws were constitutional until 2003,” I shout, waving my popsicle around the room. “2003!” I need Andrew to be as outraged as I am. I need us both to share that hot feeling in our chests.
“That Fourteenth Amendment is tricky,” he says, adjusting his glasses. “As I’m sure you know, there’s no explicit right to privacy, so it ends up being — ”
“Don’t say ‘judicial activism,’” I interrupt again, determined to expose for him these contemptible hypocrisies. “Any interpretation of the Constitution promotes a certain ideology, and it’s so goddamn insincere for conservatives to say otherwise.”
“That may be,” Andrew says, shrugging. “I’m inclined to agree with Roberts’ dissent, that same-sex marriage should’ve been achieved through legislation, but again, I haven’t read it all the way through yet.”
I know there’s another point I want to make, an obscure critique from another case that the Times mentioned earlier in the day. I flounder until I remember my lines: “Well that Scalia sure is a piece of shit.”
A half hour later, Andrew’s still humoring me when I realize that we’re having two different conversations. Unlike him, I’m only pretending to care about the legal intricacies.
What I really want to say has nothing to do with the Constitution: that watching four Supreme Court justices vote against marriage equality feels like bigotry, no matter how justifiable their legal scholarship, that even though they constituted a minority, the decision still feels, in some ways, like a defeat.
At the next pause in our conversation, I notice Hany sitting on the couch by himself. “Sorry,” I say, spilling my drink when I set it down next to him. “But I needed to have that conversation.”
“No worries, Babe.”
“Are we still meeting up with Colin?”
“Asleep? Doesn’t he know what a historic —” Hany starts to sigh, and I change courses — “okay, cool.”
“He says he’s saving it for Pride,” Hany says. I feel better knowing the protest — I stop just short of correcting Hany whenever he says parade — is on Sunday. “You ready to go?” Hany asks, squeezing my shoulder. I nod and stand up.
“We’re so privileged,” I say to Hany later, continuing a conversation I started inside my head during the cab ride over. We’ve just exited the elevator on the roof of Hotel Americano and are in the mob crowded around the bar. The men around us — even though it’s a Pride event, it’s all men — wear pretty much the same thing Hany and I are wearing, with minute variations: boat shoes, Chino shorts, and a button-down or $35 tank top. It’s 1 a.m., and Hany still has work to do after we get home later that night. I continue, louder than necessary: “We’re wealthy and cis and living in New York City. Not everyone shares our advantages.” I look at him and raise my eyebrows.
“Babe, it’s okay,” he says, “We did it.”
We’re crammed inches away from the other men, two of whom have stopped talking and turned toward us. I couldn’t share my outrage with my boss, my friends, or Andrew, but I might be able to with Hany. “That’s not the point,” I yell, loudly enough that the bartender snaps his head up. Hany looks around and leans in closer. “It’s okay,” he says gently, putting his hand on my shoulder. I open my mouth, prepared to keep arguing, but we’ve reached the front of the line. “Vodka-soda,” I bark. When the drinks come, I grab mine while Hany signs the check. They’re $14 a piece.
“Big day!” Hany’s friend says, as Hany and I approach the couches where they’re sitting. “Thank God for the Supreme Court.”
“Never thank anyone for what’s rightfully ours,” I shoot back, refusing to raise my glass. Hany looks down at the ground.
A half hour later, Hany and I are silent as we climb into the taxi, and I reflexively mute the video screen. It reads Plaintiff Wins Case; Same Sex Marriage Legal Nationwide and shows a 2013 picture of the newly-married Jim Obergefell and John Arthur on a tarmac. Arthur, lying on a stretcher, cocooned in sheets, and secured by three black straps, stares without expression, nearly paralyzed from ALS. Obergefell, on the other hand, is beaming as he squeezes his partner’s shoulder. Around them, friends and family cry and hold signs of congratulations and Finally, Mr. & Mr.
In the photo, they’ve just returned from Maryland, along with two medically trained pilots, a nurse, and Arthur’s aunt, who became ordained online in the hopes of someday marrying her nephew. The marriage ceremony, legal in Baltimore but not in their home state of Ohio, had lasted seven and a half minutes.Three months later, Arthur died, and Jim petitioned to be listed as the surviving spouse on his death certificate. Ohio’s attorney general refused.
They were the perfect plaintiffs, I think. Like the Edith Windsor, the widow who brought the appeal against DOMA, Arthur couldn’t sit next to his partner in court, wearing a matching suit jacket and whispering into his ear. The couple couldn’t stand at the end of oral arguments and quickly kiss each other on the mouth. Arthur stayed how he was — dead — and Obergefell was, I imagine, riddled with grief, not outrage, their relationship frozen forever and drained of passion.
I turn toward Hany. I try to apologize but can’t, not yet, so I start crying. He slides next to me, and I put my head in his lap. “Babe,” he says, rubbing my back. “What’s wrong?” I keep crying. A few minutes pass, and I sit up and look at him. Even if we do get married, I think, now at least I’d never have to watch him die and then petition the state to maybe, if the electorate didn’t mind and the judiciary thought it prudent, to list me as the surviving spouse. I want to tell Hany that the prospect of getting a marriage certificate as easily as I got a vodka-soda feels like the worst kind of entitlement, the kind where I order without offering even the pretense of paying.
Instead, I say nothing; I’m still too filled with anger, some of which is directed at all those complicit in constructing an epicenter of heteronormativity, but most is meant for Hany. He reacted how I wish I could have: casually. I said we should never thank anyone for what’s rightfully ours, but I didn’t believe it. I know I deserve to marry, but I don’t feel it. Hany does — without having to prove it to his boss, defend it with Constitutional abstractions, or perform it on the rooftop of Hotel Americano.
I believed what I said to Hany about privilege, but I had only the worst of intentions. I thought, if only Hany were as angry as I was (either at me or with me, it didn’t matter), I could finally find the connection I’d been looking for. Outrage, always so accessible for me, so comforting in its propulsion (outward, never inward), was an easy way to avoid the guilt I was really feeling for gaining the right to marry at such a low cost.
When we get home that night, I go straight to bed while Hany turns on the fan, which makes him too cold but which I like. Before I fall asleep, he hugs me from behind and kisses my back and tells me it’ll be okay. He never asks for an apology or an explanation. I deliver the former either that night or the next morning. I think I say I’m sorry for my tone or that it wasn’t the right time or that I should’ve known he was tired. To be honest, what I remember most from my apology is that I never said sorry for the words themselves. Those were still too strong, still wrapped too tightly around me.
* * *