As Pesach approached this year, I prepared to view myself, as Jewish tradition demands, as though I had been delivered from Egypt. This year in particular, I tried to imagine my freedom as a bundle of different rights, all immediately restored to me in one moment of miraculous liberation. Of all of them, which would I run to exercise first? Which right, once I asserted it, would instantiate my freedom? Imagining complete bondage from a position of total freedom is profoundly hard (that’s probably why it’s a mitzvah). Even though the Pesach seder recounts the horrors of slavery, it is easy to overlook the full extent of what it means to go from such darkness into the light of freedom. In thinking about every right that proves I am free in this world, I was ashamed to admit that, until this year, the right to marry had not crossed my mind.
Last week, the fight for equal marriage took two victories as the Supreme Court delivered its opinions in United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry. The journey of the Perry decision began with a 2010 trial in federal district court in San Francisco, in which sociologists, historians, psychologists, and other experts testified in support of extending marriage rights to gays and lesbians. For me, the most powerful testimony was that of Dr. Nancy Cott, a Harvard historian who studies marriage and family. In emphasizing the increasing importance of marriage to human freedom throughout history, she spoke about the emancipation of slaves after the Civil War. Slave-owners had denied slaves control over sex, marriage, and childrearing. Upon emancipation, freed slaves flocked to exercise the fundamental ability to choose their most intimate association, on their own terms, under law. They got married.
Thus, it felt especially appropriate that these two landmark cases were argued before the Supreme Court on the first day of Pesach this year. Typically, mapping political causes of the moment onto ancient ritual strikes me as forced relevance or, worse, a cheap lifeline to tradition. But Dr. Cott’s testimony about the freed slaves and Pharoah’s ruthless control over Israelite family planning did not feel so tenuously linked. Nor did the cases’ timely convergence with Pesach feel like a merely convenient opportunity to derail discussion of our people’s redemption in favor of a trendier cry for justice. It felt like a moment of profound clarity into the current lived experience of a freedom that most Americans have always enjoyed. At seder on the first night, gazing across the table at a dear friend and his boyfriend, I shared the testimony in Perry and admitted that though I had always considered myself a pretty good straight ally, I had completely taken for granted my own freedom to marry. The government will be ambivalent about whomever I marry, because I will marry a man. Somehow, I too had become ambivalent toward my own exercise of that fundamental right.
I’m sure I wasn’t alone. Many people would not imagine, upon freedom from bondage, running to make a host of personally and legally binding promises to another human being. Entire sitcoms and comedic tropes have depended upon marriage being the butt of every joke, lampooned as the end of all meaningful freedom. For plenty of people, marriage sounds like slavery. How free we have all been to think so.
Indeed, the crowd of celebrants outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday was one of the most romantic sights I had ever seen. Most importantly, I was thrilled that countless Americans had achieved crucial legal recognition for the most important choice two individuals can make in a lifetime. But Justice Kennedy’s language of liberty and dignity, echoing his opinion in Lawrence v. Texas—delivered ten years earlier to the day—also spoke to me personally as someone whose freedom to make such a choice before the law was never in doubt. Those of us who, by dint of our partner’s gender, have always been able to exercise this right, who would hardly imagine life without it, and who would so take it for granted that we would forget how it makes us fundamentally free; we have, shamefully enough, needed a reminder.
So to my gay brothers and sisters: thank you. Thank you for rebuilding freedom through the right to marry. Thank you for your courage, bravery, and inexplicable patience. Thank you for winning a victory for love, commitment, and choice for all of us. Thank you for your overwhelming love of freedom and your unending faith that our great nation’s promise will be fully delivered to you.
Jana Jett Loeb is a second-year law student at Berkeley School of Law at the University of California, and legal intern at the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief in Washington, D.C. Before starting law school, she spent a year as a fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Prior to that, she was a year fellow at Yeshivat Hadar in New York City. She graduated from Brown University with a degree in Biomedical Ethics. Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Jana loves knitting, singing niggunim, and cheering for the Green Bay Packers. Jana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.