"Free at last!"
That will be Lawrence resident Lynne Green's reaction if, later this year, the U.S. Supreme Court makes same-sex marriage legal across the country. The court heard arguments Tuesday and Wednesday on whether to overturn a California ban on gay marriage called Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, which doesn't recognize same-sex unions at the federal level.
When Green was working to get anti-discrimination measures passed in Lawrence nearly two decades ago, as co-chair of the Simply Equal coalition, she never would have guessed this day would come so soon. And now the nonprofit director believes the court will change the definition of marriage nationwide to include gay couples.
"This will be the beginning of total equality," she said.
Many local gay-rights advocates were similarly optimistic that a ruling would come out on their side. The time has come, they say, and waiting for states to decide on their own won't suffice. Some advocates, however, say such a decision would only be the start of a long fight against discrimination over sexual orientation.
Joe McGehee, a 52-year-old landscaper from Lawrence and board member for the local lesbian-gay-bisexual-and-transgender social group NetworQ, said a Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage would cause him to do one thing … get married.
"I should be able to marry who I love, not who someone else tells me I should marry," he said. "We would like to have the same benefits and rights that everyone else who is married."
If the court rules for gay marriage, Lawrence school teacher Kim Kreicker would elope as well — with her partner of 25 years. "Needless to say, we feel we're citizens of the U.S. and we would like to be able to enjoy the full services that citizens are entitled to," she said.
The conditions have improved dramatically for LGBT Americans in the past quarter-century, she said. Back then, Kreicker and her partner wanted to move to Lawrence but the city didn't yet have anti-discriminatory measures in place, so they relocated to Kansas City, Mo. After passage of the Simply Equal ordinance a few years later, they finally made Lawrence their home. Now they look to break down another barrier.
"I never dreamed that the U.S. would ever allow gay men and lesbians to marry," said Kreicker's partner, Arla Jones, the mentor to Lawrence High School's Gay-Straight Alliance. "As Kim and I have aged, the importance of having our relationship formally recognized has become more and more important."
Everywhere the 53-year-old women go, they carry legal documents to ensure they can visit and make health-care decisions for each other in the hospital.
Other advocates say issues of more direct importance to gays should be at the forefront of this debate.
"I feel like our community's efforts should be focused on issues that will bring us all closer to equality, like transgender and queer youth homelessness and suicide, immigrant rights, racism, universal healthcare, access to abortion, bullying, and transgender justice," said 25-year-old Rachel Gadd-Nelson, of Lawrence Queer Youth Voice. She calls the belief that marriage equality is the last barrier of gay rights the result of "strategic branding by organizations that have promoted a conservative agenda that hopes to portray our community as non-threatening as possible."
"Whatever the decision is," she added, "I hope that we all can put all our energy and money into movements that will fight for liberation and not assimilation."
Either way, gay-rights supporters praise the local community for its openness to their cause. In 1995, Lawrence became the only city in Kansas to have an anti-discriminatory policy for gays and lesbians, and later added transgender residents to the ordinance. Lawrence was also the first municipality in the state to enact a domestic-partnership registry.
If the Supreme Court legalizes gay marriage nationwide, Green's co-chair in Simply Equal, Ben Zimmerman, won't be around to see it. Zimmerman, a longtime community activist from Lawrence, died 10 years ago this September. "He fought his whole life for equal rights for same-sex couples," Green said. "He would have been overjoyed."
Green, though, says she will celebrate on his behalf.
"It's just beyond my belief that we've having this conversation," she said. "We've come so far, we really have."