I began the day of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision at a lakeside camp in Warnitz, Germany, a small town just north of Berlin, having spent the night there with one of my oldest friends. Libby is an American expat who first left in 1989; between this camp and an apartment in Berlin, she has a beautiful life I admire every time I visit. We went for a two-hour walk through fields full of poppies, wheat, cornflowers, and fruit trees, and I could feel my anxiety recede.
This was one of the weeks of my life where my work had helped me get through. That morning, just before our walk, I had filed an interview with Michelangelo Signorile about his new book, It’s Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality. Reading it had become a way of organizing my anxieties. This was a fifth book for Signorile, the journalist who invented outing as a political tactic, and it outlines a progressive intersectional approach to the political future of the LGBT community that begins with fighting what he calls victory blindness—the powerful illusion that the work you have been doing as an activist is almost done, blinding you to how much there is left to do.
When we spoke, I had asked him if he had a prediction for that morning. “I see a narrow victory for marriage equality but the legal theory behind it is unlikely to be far-reaching for fuller LGBT rights,” he answered. “We'll be back at the court many times in the future.” It was the sober answer of an experienced advocate, and it stuck firmly in my mind as Libby and I packed and boarded the train to return to Berlin. I checked Twitter once we were seated and I saw the announcement. I knew at once that the decision had exceeded Signorile’s prediction.
Once again, we were in the future. And we are in danger of victory blindness.
Kennedy’s writing in the decision struck me as a mix of the gracious, the forceful, the awkward, and at times the maudlin, with its talk of lonely single people and the institution of marriage—as I sped through the German countryside, I felt at times like I was reading a wedding speech. This, unexpectedly, moved me. Kennedy did more in this decision to actually defend marriage as an institution than anything the Defense of Marriage Act ever did.
The outrageous dissenting opinions are now already well known. As Signorile warned in his book, the right is playing the victim as they lose now. I don’t know that I have much to add to what’s been said already about the dissents, except to say it seemed clear these were also very public messages to conservatives on possible routes to undermine the decision in future political fights. Together, they read like a last gasp from the people who have used gay marriage as a wedge issue in elections for at least 30 years.
What struck me most, though, was how the decision fit the way a majority of Americans felt. This was a ruling that had the feeling and force of an electoral landslide victory, for all that it was a narrow decision.
I also didn’t expect its breadth: This will change many lives. In 2009, the New York Times ran an analysis on the cost of being a LGBT couple trying to live as a married couple but without the same protections. Over a lifetime, they estimated a couple would spend as much as $467,562 more, and as little as $41,196, with costs running lower the higher your income. The heaviest burden fell on the lowest earners; saving this sort of money will save lives and change destinies.
On social media, in my feeds, the reactions ran from ecstatic outbursts of joy, to schadenfreude at conservative pain, to accusations that this was a victory really only for cisgender white gay men, to posts from trans women of color friends celebrating by kissing their lesbian or bisexual wives. Many of my friends are already married and posted wedding pictures. Some of them had married repeatedly due to the vagaries of the battles over marriage in their states and told those stories. The Audre Lorde Project called for a Trans Day of Action later that day. A few people tried to figure out what exactly Scalia meant when he mentioned hippies in his dissent, who were never that into marriage at all. And of course, friends were posting under a picture of my partner Dustin and myself, asking whether we would marry.
By the time I arrived in Berlin, I felt alone and tired of looking at my phone as a way to celebrate or worry—the feeling I always have when I’m in foreign countries during national political events. Libby was tired and begged off celebrating with me, and so I asked my friend Bill, an American who isn’t quite an expat, to meet me.
Bill chose a bar in Berlin called Möbel-Olfe. It’s a place that has several different queer nights in the week—a lesbian night, a gay man’s night—but it was clear that at some point these distinctions had made people impatient: Now, every night was everyone’s night. The crowd was a mix of people in the way that I have always preferred. A woman and a man were making out over Bill’s shoulder, amid a crowd of gay men who were not watching them. A trans man languidly smoked a cigarette, casting a long eye over the bar, daring someone to speak to him. Over my shoulder, Bill and his friend Diego were checking out another couple, two men. Our drinks arrived and we lifted them and paused.
“When you toast in Brazil, you sweep the drink over your head like this to make an offering to the guide spirit,” Diego said.
I tried it out. I could feel the wind of my drink’s passing on my scalp. But it felt right, somehow.
“Sure, let’s do it,” I said. “What’s the name of the saint?”
“I don’t remember,” he said.
Did it matter if we didn’t know his name? I didn’t think it did. We lifted up our glasses, toasted the decision, and then swept the glasses over our heads. I liked this ritual. I liked how it resembled the way Koreans offer drinks to the dead—a shot tossed at a grave, or left beside it—and besides, I wanted to honor not just the future, but the dead. So I privately chose to think of them as offerings to those who wanted to see this day and never did. I didn’t think the saint would mind.
I had made and then abandoned plans for attending the opening party for the Pride celebration there in Berlin, also known as Christopher Street Day. Apparently “pride” in German just doesn’t have the right connotations, according to my friends here. But I knew what I wanted, which was to be in New York City, down on Christopher Street, and to be at something called Christopher Street Day would only remind of what I had missed.
This was my celebration, then, and to be honest, I preferred it. We were unlikely celebrants: Bill and Diego had both expressed little interest in marrying—Diego was slightly more interested than Bill, who was not interested at all, and as for me, I was also unsure if I would. But we were all genuinely happy this had happened in America, and happy for our friends who wanted to marry. One German man we spoke to said he felt like it was the 22nd century now; he and Bill talked about Germany’s lack of marriage equality, which was a surprise to me. Diego met another Diego from Spain, who, when asked how he felt about it, said, “In Spain, this is the default and has been for some time. It was time for you to catch up.” I could only agree.
There were no rainbow flags, no gogo dancers, no lip-synced acts. No parades. Just a bartender with a cigarette balanced on her lip, and music from the 1980s playing like it had never stopped. And every now and then, a toast with offerings to the guide saint.
I had first come to Berlin in 1990, on a search for someplace to live besides the United States. (I also went to Scotland.) I fell in love: with the squatter anarchist punks in East Berlin, the LGBT center that had printed me a list of gay clubs at my asking, complete with train directions, and the mix of ancient buildings and new ones. In 2012, when I lived for six months in Leipzig on a fellowship, that love was renewed, this time by the fields full of wind farms, the country’s commitment to renewable energy, and the fact that a friend could have nearly three years of maternity leave from her job. Germany seemed like not just a paradise of humane policies by comparison to the U.S., but also, a place I could feel more normal.
Life in America had felt like a life in exile for a long time—strange to feel in the place I was born. I had imagined I wanted to retire in Berlin for a long time, though I’d never thought about why. As I examined the feeling that night in Libby’s guest bedroom, I realized I had simply wanted a place that felt like home.
All through the day and night, it had not been lost on me that I had gotten the news as I was arriving in Berlin, a little like I had imagined in my essay that ran in this publication a few days ago. It was a coincidence that seemed to have a meaning, and yet the meaning had not been immediately clear. It was hard not to feel like a character in a novel but I tried all the same—I think the terrible mistakes characters make in novels come of that feeling.
On the train, however, when I’d learned what the Supreme Court had decided, I had known, instantly, that I wasn’t home. Queer was now as normal as straight in the eyes of the law regarding marriage, and that longstanding alienation had somehow left me—I could finally go home and feel at home. This was the strange feeling I had felt all day: belonging to the place I was born.
Whether or not I ever marry, I had wanted the right, and now I have it. This makes me a citizen of a country that is at the beginning of something profound, and I am pretty sure this is not victory blindness. It’s an appetite for victory, to take what was accomplished and do more. No, we don’t know what the next future holds. And no, marriage equality is not enough—there’s still more to do. We can’t naively believe that this solves all of the problems facing us. But I do think it begins their solution.
I am thinking of a friend's son, age 10, who just a few weeks before this, told his mother they had to leave Indiana eventually because it didn't have marriage equality. He thought his chances of marrying would be better if he could also marry a boy as well as a girl. His mother and father had told me this story, proud of him.
He may grow up and decide he’ll never marry. He may grow up and decide he’s not a boy. He may stay in Indiana or leave. At least, as of last Friday, he gets to choose. His whole generation does. That’s my country. That’s my home.