LGBT media brought personal stories, as well as analysis, to Supreme Court’s landmark marriage decisions
by Chuck Colbert
Just in time for major Pride celebrations cost to coast, two landmark same-sex marriage decisions came down from the U.S. Supreme Court on June 25. Hollingsworth v. Perry, concerning Proposition 8, and U.S. v. Windsor, concerning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), unleashed an avalanche of media coverage, mainstream and LGBT.
The sheer volume of reporting and commentary was overwhelming. Coverage spanned a sweeping range, everything from what the high court said in the rulings, to the decisions’ political and legal ramifications, to the practical effect of extending more than 1,000 federal benefits to married gay couples in 13 states and spouses of services members, to an outpouring of joy in Pride celebrations from New York to Chicago to Minneapolis to San Francisco and beyond. Within days, same-sex marriage returned to California.
In a few words, the DOMA decision striking down Section 3 and the Prop. 8 ruling were a “BFD,” as Joe Biden would say. For veteran journalist Lisa Keen, gay media were compelled to report on “the contents and impact of the decisions because they were a matter of historic record that any LGBT news outlet was obliged to cover even though a thousand mainstream news organizations were doing the same,” she said. Keen News Service (KNS) provides gay-themed content for a variety of LGBT publications nationwide.
Subsequent KNS coverage, Keen explained, looked “at the difference it makes to the decisions that Obama is in office, compared to how the Bush administration ignored the Lawrence [v. Texas] ruling in 2003, coupled with some details on how quickly same-sex couples might be able to access federal benefits. And I’ve followed up on how DOMA might affect other states such as New Jersey, Nevada, Arizona.”
It was 10 years to the day, June 25, 2003, when the Supreme Court struck down all anti-sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas, an equally historic decision of great import for LGBT rights and liberation.
How much of an appetite did gay readers have for news of the big victories?
“Our community is probably eager to read everything they can about various aspects of the decisions, the plaintiffs’ reactions, stuff like that,” said Keen. “But they don’t need all of us doing the same thing. So I leave all the color, human interest pieces to the mainstream media and others and — after getting the basics in about the decisions — try to focus on filling in with stories that are of practical benefit to LGBT readers and which are not already covered by widely read mainstream sources like AP.”
Uniquely based in the nation’s capital, the Washington Blade had a front-row seat to gay history. Its staffers filed front-line stories from the Supreme Court with reporters covering content of the rulings, lead plaintiffs in both cases, and reactions from community members.
Blade reporter Michael K. Lavers focused on human interest. How the Supreme Court’s decisions “affected real people” was paramount, he said.
One real person, Lavers said, “was a Maryland pastor whom I met outside the court about 30 minutes before the justices issued their decision. He had been married to his now ex-wife with whom he had five children before he came out in the early 2000s. He married his husband in Massachusetts in 2004 shortly after the commonwealth’s landmark Goodridge ruling took effect.”
Lavers also covered a group of 25 gay and lesbian couples from Ohio and other states that do not allow same-sex marriage. The couples had traveled to the District of Columbia to exchange vows in a mass wedding at the steps of the Supreme Court on June 21 — four days before the landmark rulings.
“Officers who oversee security at the Supreme Court allowed the couples to walk down the court steps after they tied the knot,” he said.
Same-sex marriage has been legal in D.C. since March 2010.
As fate would have it, Lavers was on hand at Cambridge, Mass., City Hall on May 17, 2004, reporting on the first same-sex couples in the U.S. to receive marriage licenses. “It is simply remarkable to see how far the marriage equality movement has come over the last decade,” he said. “It was increasingly difficult to keep my own emotions in check as my colleagues and I continued to report the impact of the Supreme Court rulings on same-sex couples, LGBT Americans, and the country as a whole. That said, our decision to humanize the story really illustrated the true impact of these landmark decisions,” said Lavers.
The Supreme Court’s rulings were “huge” and came at deadline crunch-time for New York-based Gay City News (GCN), said editor Paul Schindler, “since the NYC Pride March was on June 30. Our 100-page Pride issue was due at the printer on Tuesday night, June 25.
“When we learned definitively that the rulings were coming down at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, we scrambled to rearrange our print time to get those stories into print and were able to provide a complete legal overview from New York Law School Professor Arthur Leonard, our legal correspondent, as well as provide coverage of the Edie Windsor press conference at the LGBT Community Center, the rally at the Stonewall Inn that afternoon at 5:30 p.m., and the Prop 8 challengers’ press conference.”
New York City resident and lead plaintiff Edie Windsor provided GCN with an obvious and easy local angle.
Meanwhile, Schindler’s editorial assessed the current state of the movement, that is to say the meaning of the wins, but also the lack of a transgender civil rights law in New York State and the reversals from the Voting Rights Act.
In all, “We were able to get the paper to the printer at 9 p.m. that evening and reach the streets late Thursday evening, about five hours after we would have done so had we gone to print on Tuesday night,” he said. “Naturally, we covered online after publication the resumption of marriage in California on June 28 and followed up, in a subsequent print issue, the rush of new marriages in New York after the DOMA ruling and national stories on the hopes for further progress on marriage equality across the country.”
Deadline crunch time was also on the mind of San Francisco-based Bay Area Reporter’s editor Cynthia Laird, even as the three-hour time difference allowed some breathing room.
“Thankfully this is one time when I’m glad we’re on Pacific Time,” she said. “The Supreme Court decisions started coming out about 7 a.m. our time, so by the time it was over, my reporter here had time to get up to city hall for the news conference. My photographer was there to get pictures, and it all got in our Pride issue, which had an earlier deadline than usual.”
Laird relied on a national reporter, who quickly filed a story on the court decisions themselves. “I ended up combining the national-local into one story since we were crushed for time and didn’t have much space by that point,” she said. “When the 9th Circuit lifted its stay two days later, we got the story up on our blog, and continued updating throughout the weekend,” which spilled over into Pride, Sunday, June 30.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” said the late civil-rights leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. And seemingly, for LGBTs that arc is extending equality and liberty at a surprisingly fast pace. Veteran reporter and editor Karen Ocamb at Los Angeles-based Frontiers took that extension as a lens for her coverage.
“The passage of Prop 8 [in 2008] profoundly shook a generation of somewhat entitled young LGBT people,” she explained. “Marriage became a matter of equality and civil rights. We tried to cover almost every angle: the founding of the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), the filing of the federal lawsuit, what that meant, the backlash, the people involved and almost every angle and color of the Prop 8 case.
“Frankly, this was hometown news and lots of folks, especially in West Hollywood, actually know Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo [the plaintiffs in the Prop 8 challenge], as well as Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin and AFER board president Bruce Cohen, who have been on the political entertainment scene for a while. That lent a certain air of intimacy and urgency to the news coverage. And with people now engaged in the struggle for marriage equality, I’ve been putting together a photo essay on the arc of marriage history in Los Angeles, starting with the cover of the L.A.-based ONE Magazine in August 1953 entitled “Homosexual Marriage?” A little historical context made easy.”
Certainly, same-sex marriage has traveled a rocky road in California. Ocamb recalled its path.
“Having been around for a while now, one of the things I can contribute is historical context,” she said. “During one of the first community meetings with the leaders of the No on Prop 22 campaign in 2000, for instance, I asked if they noticed that the auditorium at the LA Gay & Lesbian Center was not even half filled. They were focused on raising money to produce commercials — how were they were going to engage the gay community? They shrugged off the question as if it was incomprehensible that the gay community wouldn’t rush to volunteer, contribute and vote. It was a huge lesson to learn that we can’t take our own community for granted.
“Since then I’ve always asked how leaders and organizations try to engage the LGBT voter in a particular political campaign or effort. That includes asking former Bush Solicitor General Ted Olson at that first AFER in May 2009, ‘Why should the gay community trust you?’”
Sure enough, the landscape of marriage equality is poised to expand, with Illinois, New Jersey and Hawaii topping the list of likely next possibilities. Beyond 2014, other states may well figure as battlegrounds, including Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Ohio, Nevada and New Mexico.
The ACLU has filed suit in Pennsylvania, challenging the Keystone State’s gay marriage ban. Even before that lawsuit, Central Voice, based in the state capital of Harrisburg, reported on a Pennsylvania couple who found an interesting way around the state’s version of DOMA: The younger gay man, John, 65, adopted his partner, Gregory, 73. The two are now legally father and son. Central Voice broke the story, which ABC News reported nationwide.