Gavin Newsom strolled down the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building Tuesday afternoon looking a lot less lonely than he did a decade ago.
Other Democrats – and even many gay activists – warned in 2004 that the then-San Francisco mayor’s decision to permit gay and lesbian couples to marry might set off a backlash undermining the push for marriage equality.
“It’s an extraordinary thing how quiet people were for so many years,” said Newsom, now California's lieutenant governor, after the court heard arguments that may decide once and for all whether gays everywhere in the nation have a right to be married.
“It goes to the nature of politics over anything else,” Newsom said. "And also principle. A lot of people have a difficult time with this, including my father, who served on the Court of Appeal for many years. He said, ‘Can’t you just call it something else?’ And to this day, he calls himself a progressive.”
Now, even the expected Democratic nominee for president, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has called for the court to rule gay marriage is a constitutional right. As throngs of activists both for and against gay marriage amassed in front of the courthouse, the only thing most everyone seemed to agree on is that the politics of this issue have moved extraordinarily fast.
Christian conservatives gathered in front of court Tuesday strode to a podium to deliver fiery speeches scolding the justices for considering the issue.
“All we ask is that the Supreme Court justices not substitute their opinion for nature,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who then turned his anger toward the stately marble courthouse in which they work. “Leave it to each state to make that call, not people who inhabit a palace.”
As protesters shouted on bullhorns, hoisted giant signs and intently monitored their Twitter accounts for signs of which way the justices might be leaning, Rep. Mark Takano, an Inland Empire Democrat, took a seat inside the courthouse to observe the arguments.
For Takano, this case is personal. He is California’s only openly gay member of Congress. Takano acknowledges that he was also one of those activists initially concerned that the world wasn’t ready for what San Francisco set in motion in 2004.
“I was a little apprehensive,” he said. “I thought to myself then, ‘This is a huge gamble, a huge risk.’ I didn’t know where the Supreme Court was. And I didn’t know if we could count to five [votes on the court]. That was the apprehension of a lot of people.”
Takano argued then that activists should instead focus on fighting discrimination in the workplace.
“It has moved much faster than we anticipated,” he said. “I feel optimistic that this court is very soon going to rule for marriage equality everywhere in our country.”
People came from all over be part of the history. Some camped out for days in the hope of getting one of the few tickets available to catch a glimpse of the action inside the courtroom.
“This is not only about America,” said Dmitri Chizhevsky, a 28-year-old from St. Petersburg, Russia. “The whole world is watching what is happening here. I just wasn’t able not to come.”
Also out front of the courthouse were John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, San Franciscans who were among the first gay couples to obtain a marriage license in 2004. They were wearing the same tuxedos they wore for their wedding.
“We’ve seen marriage come and go and return to California for good,” said Gaffney, 52, a public health policy analyst at UC San Francisco, who, like his husband, wore a rainbow bow tie with the tux. ”We’re here in D.C. seeking the same freedom to marry for everyone in all 50 states," he said.
“We’re here because we are not just Californians, we are Americans,” added Lewis, 56, a lawyer. “All Americans should have the freedom to be married.”
Demonstrators in favor of gay marriage shared the packed sidewalk with protesters opposed to legalizing same-sex unions, many carrying signs condemning homosexuality being as against their religious beliefs.
Abigail Phelps, of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., said it was “an historic moment."
"There is no question what the Supreme Court is going to do,” she said, acknowledging predictions by legal experts that the court is poised to mandate gay marriage nationwide. “But we’re here to remind them of what the judgment of God is despite rebellious judges,” she said.