As soon he heard the news, Jeremy Sprinkle went to the bar.
He knew it was coming. Everyone did. They had been waiting for it all day. By midafternoon on Oct. 10, 2014, an overcast and unseasonably warm Friday, same-sex couples had lined up outside the Wake County Register of Deeds office as word broke that that a federal judge was going to rule on the constitutionality of the state's gay-marriage ban. Given the way courts all over the country had decided this issue since the Supreme Court overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, they could taste victory.
And then it came, at 5:32 p.m.
"The issue before this court is neither a political issue nor a moral issue," wrote U.S. District Court Judge Max Cogburn Jr. "It is a legal issue and it is clear as a matter of what is now settled law in the Fourth Circuit that North Carolina laws prohibiting same-sex marriage, refusing to recognize same-sex marriages originating elsewhere, and/or threatening to penalize those who would solemnize such marriages, are unconstitutional."
And so Jeremy Sprinkle went to the bar. Not just any bar, and not just to celebrate. He walked to Tasty Beverage Company, a bottle shop and taproom where his partner of nine-plus years, Ziggy, was manager. From there, they went downtown and became one of the first 37 gay couples married in Wake County. Ziggy took Jeremy's last name. Then they walked to Bittersweet, which was giving newlyweds a free bottle of champagne, and celebrated. A photographer with The News & Observer snapped a picture of them, both in red T-shirts, both with long beards and brown hair, nuzzling and smiling and holding flowers, Jeremy with his eyes closed.
They were very much in love.
As soon as he heard the news, Jeremy Sprinkle went back to that same bar.
Once again, everyone knew it was coming, though they didn't know exactly when. Once again, they waited with baited breath, expecting victory but anxious about the fallout should they lose.
Shortly after 10 a.m., the verdict came down in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. A closely divided U.S. Supreme Court, in a contentious 5–4 ruling remarkable for the bitterness of its dissents, decided that same-sex couples had a constitutional right to marry.
For gays and lesbians across the country, this was a momentous decision on par with Brown v. Board of Education or Loving v. Virginia, cases that shaped the social fabric and extended rights to heretofore-marginalized groups. For conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, Obergefell was an outrage of the first order, judicial tyranny at its very worst, a decision portending divine retribution, at least according to North Carolina preacher Franklin Graham.
One day, probably soon, Jeremy would indulge in schadenfreude, but not this Friday. This Friday, like that Friday in October, was set aside for celebration. For the Sprinkles, this was not just an abstraction; this was a concrete finality, a declaration that their nuptials were real and legitimate and not subject to anyone's vote, not dependent on any politician.
Ziggy and Jeremy were, in the eyes of the law, every bit as married as my wife and I, and no one could take that away from them.
And so an hour after Obergefell was handed down, Jeremy left his job—he's communications director at the N.C. AFL-CIO—and once again walked the 20 minutes or so to Tasty, singing aloud to himself the entire way. Nina Simone's classic "Feeling Good" was his earworm: "It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life for me, and I'm feeling good."
"I just can't get that song out of my head," he told me. "'Freedom is mine and I know how I feel. I'm feeling good.' It's awesome, man."
Ziggy wasn't there that day. He was out of town, at The BIG What?, a jam-band festival in Mebane. But Jeremy wanted to be at Tasty anyway. It felt appropriate—symmetrical, perhaps.
He settled into a metal chair on Tasty's patio, a pint of blueberry-infused something or other from Smuttynose in front of him. He couldn't stop smiling.
I asked if he'd been worried—not just that the ruling would go the other way, but that if it did the state's lawmakers would try to invalidate his and all the other same-sex marriages that have taken place in the last eight months.
"In the back of my head, sure," he replied. "This was a good lesson in why you shouldn't read too much into oral arguments, because [Justice Anthony] Kennedy kinda scared the shit out of me, his questioning when the Supreme Court heard the case and he talked about, you know, the word that kept coming back to him was 'millennia,' as in marriage has been a certain thing for millennia. Obviously that's a bogus point anyway, but he raised it. That was a little alarming because I knew he'd be the deciding vote."
In the end, Kennedy authored an elegant defense not just of the importance of marriage but also of gay couples' right to take part in it:
"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization's oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. ... It is so ordered."
In retrospect, this judgment seems inevitable. Not only because of the historical trends, but also because, had the Court gone the other way, the result would have been chaos. But that wasn't the case early Friday morning. "Well, I don't have to think about that anymore," Jeremy said, sipping his beer. "I'm not going to spend another thought on it."
He'd rather talk about what this ruling means for him and Ziggy, for all the young queer kids coming to terms with their sexual identities, for the country as a whole.
"It symbolizes a nation that struggles to and sometimes does live up to its ideals," he told me. "It's most definitely a historic day. But—I don't know, man, it means that love wins and haters can hate. And they're gonna, and they'll lose, and they have."
Indeed they have. What's remarkable isn't that social conservatives lost, but how rapidly and completely they lost.
Jeremy was one of those young queer kids when, in 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court took the first step toward legal recognition of same-sex couples. (Four years later the state extended domestic partnership protections to gays and lesbians, the first state to do so.) Until the Supreme Court's 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas striking down anti-sodomy laws—issued 12 years to the day before Obergefell and also authored by Kennedy—it was illegal for him to have sex with his boyfriend.
In 2004 President George W. Bush made a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage a central part of his reelection campaign. In 2008, candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both feigned opposition to gay marriage, mouthing support instead for the separate-but-equal hogwash of civil unions. Until 2013—exactly two years before Obergefell, in another decision authored by Kennedy—the federal government had a law explicitly forbidding any recognition of or protections for same-sex couples. (If there were ever a federal holiday commemorating the gay-rights movement, June 26 would be a good candidate.)
What's more, we're only 46 years removed from Stonewall, and three decades from the Reagan administration's aggressive indifference to the gay community's suffering during the early years of the AIDS crisis.
"I remember being a young queer kid when the state of Hawaii broke the ice on this issue," Jeremy said. "And the reaction to that was intense, that's when a lot of these amendments started coming around. And then the Massachusetts Supreme Court said, no, it's unconstitutional for our state, and it triggered another massive reaction, and it was negative, but at the same time it was giving more queer Americans hope that maybe the arc really was bending toward justice. And here we are. It has. It did."
And it did quickly.
"Today didn't happen in a vacuum," Jeremy told me. "It took decades of effort and courage and suffering put in by people who lived and died long before I was born. And every movement for social justice is built on the movement that came before it. But today was built on the sacrifice of a countless number of people. People who have made it possible by coming out and surviving the bullies and outliving the hate amendments and—I mean, that's great."
That's why drag queens are his heroes, he continued—specifically, the drag queens who started the Stonewall riot in 1969, after New York City cops raided the Stonewall Inn.
"When those queens picked up those bricks and said, 'We are mourning Judy Garland, not today, Satan,' and they threw them at the cops and they started that riot because they were sick of it, because they'd had enough. And I think the very next day the first gay pride parade happened in New York City, and that little spark of courage and defiance and resistance lit a flame in the heart of every young queer kid in this country. And every older queer person, too.
"For many gay men, it gave us the courage to come out. And it's the coming out that—coming out is what made today possible. Because when people come out of the closet, they're not just getting something off their chest; they're giving everyone they know and love the opportunity to grow and be a better person—collectively for the nation to do the same."
The thousands and millions of people who came out in the '70s and '80s and '90s allowed people to see LGBT folks for who they really are—people.
"That's what the Supreme Court did today—saw LGBT Americans for who we really are," he told me. "Americans."
Ziggy and Jeremy met at a New Year's Eve party in 2004, when they were both living in Greensboro. It was a setup: Ziggy's best friend was married to Jeremy's best friend and thought they would be a good match. She was right.
"We're just like any couple," Ziggy told me Monday. "We fell in love. We've been together for a while. We're very deeply committed."
And now, like any couple, their marriage is legally unassailable.
"I came out a really long time ago, 1994," Ziggy said. "Back then this was something I thought I'd never be able to do. That this just happened—it really makes it so nobody could mess with that."
Victories like this need to be cherished, Jeremy told me Friday, because they don't come around very often—and there's always another battle to be waged.
"Now he's Mr. Sprinkle." Jeremy looked away and grinned wistfully. "Whenever I think about it for more than a minute, it's just amazing that he took my last name. It feels good—and it feels normal, like, oh my God it's so exciting, but it's also just normal. But this isn't the end of it."
Already bigotry's death rattles are manifesting in places like Mississippi and Alabama, both of which are furiously resisting modernity. So was North Carolina, which fought for its gay marriage ban in court and passed a law allowing magistrates to opt out of same-sex wedding ceremonies. And, of course, in North Carolina and many other states, you can still be fired for being LGBTQ.
But it's not hard to see where history is headed. The future will be no more kind to today's revanchists than we are to the Bull Connors of yesteryear.
"Twenty, 30, 40 years from now," Jeremy told me, "when it's not newsy, when it's not same-sex marriage, it's just marriage, people just take it for granted, we will have to be vigilant and remember the sacrifices that were made and the time it took to get to this state, so that when people in the future are swept up in some fervor we haven't seen yet, we'll be like, 'Hold on, we're not going back there.'"