I called Jeremy Sprinkle, the communications director for the N.C. AFL-CIO—and, disclosure, someone in my short time here I’ve come to think of as a friend—about an hour after the Supreme Court ruling came down. He was, in a word, ecstatic, so much so that he left work early and walked the 20 minutes to Tasty Beverage Co. (where his husband, Ziggy, works, though Ziggy is out of town at The BIG What? today) in the Depot, singing Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” out loud the entire way.
“I just can’t get that song out of my head,” he would tell me. “‘Freedom is mine and I know how I feel. I’m feeling good.’ It’s awesome, man.”
I join him for a little celebratory day-drinking (I only have one; relax, boss) and to talk about what this ruling was meant to him and to the LGBT community in general.
Ziggy and Jeremy, you see, were among the first couples in North Carolina to get married, the day the Fourth Circuit overturned the state’s gay-marriage ban in October. By that point they’d been together for more than nine years. (Ziggy took Jeremy’s last name, and is now Ziggy Sprinkle, which is a fantastic name.) And that day, like today, Jeremy went to Tasty. From there he and Ziggy went to the courthouse, and after that to Bittersweet, where they were handing out free bottles of champagne to couples who showed up with marriage licenses.
Today feels a lot like that day, he tells me—his marriage is secure, once and for all, and no one can take that away from them. His civil rights are no longer anyone else’s to vote on. That is a hell of a feeling.
We sit out front of Tasty this afternoon—me sipping an English bitter from Wicked Weed, him some blueberry concoction from Smuttynose—as Jeremy reflects on the day’s events, which he seems to have only begun to wrap his head around.
I ask if he and Ziggy had been worried that the Court might rule the other way, and if it did that his marriage might be invalidated.
“In the back of my head, sure,” he replies. “This was a good lesson in why you shouldn’t read too much into oral arguments because [Justice] 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.”
Had the Court ruled the other way, he adds, it would have been chaos. “Well, I don’t have to think about that anymore,” he says. “I’m not going to spend another thought on it.”
I told him I expected Chief Justice Roberts to side with the majority, instead of issuing a dissent arguing that this ruling had nothing to do with the Constitution. Jeremy laughed. “I don’t know, man. Fuck him. I’m sorry he can’t be on the right side of this one.”
The symbolism of today, he continued, was very real: “It symbolizes a nations that struggles to and sometimes does live up to its ideals. 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, and what’s remarkable isn’t that social conservatives lost, but how rapidly and completely they’ve lost. Jeremy was, in his words, a “young queer kid” when Hawaii became the first state to offer same-sex couples some protections in 1997. Until 2003—exactly 12 years ago today, it’s worth noting—when the Supreme Court struck down an anti-sodomy statute (a decision also authored by Kennedy), it was illegal for him for him to have sex with his boyfriend. In 2004, George W. Bush campaigned on a platform to amend the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. 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 2012—exactly three years ago today, in fact, in another case authored by Kennedy—the federal government had a law explicitly denying rights to same-sex couples. And we are only 46 years removed from Stonewall, and three decades removed from the government’s aggressive indifference to the gay community’s suffering during the early stages of the AIDS crisis.
This all happened so incredibly fast, I tell him.
“Today didn’t happen in a vacuum,” Jeremy responds. “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.”
And that’s why, he says, “drag queens are my heroes”—specifically, the drag queens who picked up rocks and started the Stonewall riot in 1969, after New York City cops raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar owned by the mafia, for what it’s worth. “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 says. “Americans. Entitled to the same constitutional rights as any other American. The right to the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Victories like this, he says, need to be celebrated, because they don’t come around too often—the good guys don’t always win—and because there’s another fight to take up. “As the powerful consolidate their power and the powerless get thrown under the bus,” he says. “But today’s not that day. Today is for the people. I mean, there’s gonna be a reaction, there’s always gonna be a reaction. But this decision is here to stay. It’s here to stay for now. And 20, 30, 40 years from now, 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.’”
If my wife and I ever have a child, I muse, that child will never know a world in which gay people cannot get married.
“I remember being a young kid queer kid when the state of Hawaii broke the ice on this issue,” Jeremy says. “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, another massive response, 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.”
He hasn’t yet fully dived into the already-bubbling-over conservative reaction to the Court’s decision, with talk of Armageddon and 9/11 and all the other assorted nonsense. He’ll save the schadenfreude for another day, probably tomorrow.
“I mean, it’s always fun to watch, to see the shoe on the other foot,” he says. “Think about how many years gay and lesbians in this country have been on the receiving end, the losing end of that sort of hatred, the hatred that is put out there by Scalia and Alito and Thomas and, disappointingly, by Roberts, and all these Republican presidential candidates. For them to—you said it earlier, schadenfreude. For them to get a taste of what it’s like to be on the losing side. Only in their case, their life and liberty is not on the line. Just the inconvenience of having their ideology challenged. … Bullies are such crybabies.”
“Perhaps. I would hope that for some of those folks it prompts a rethink. How many times are you gonna bang your head against a wall before you realize you are only hurting yourself?” he says. “It should be at least a moment of reflection, and it probably will be for some, and the sun will rise tomorrow and it will set the next day and it will rise the day after that and the world will continue.”
It’s sad, he says, to think of all the energy and resources North Carolina’s leaders expended trying to fight the inevitable. “The leaders of the state put a lot of time and energy into fighting the currents of history, and they lost—thank God they lost. Actually, thank the ACLU and everyone else. Thank Edie Windsor. Thank the plaintiffs in this case. Thanks to all the people who came out. Thanks to the people who came out and didn’t survive. Every one of those moments built up to today. It feels good. It’s an orgasm for justice.”
He tells me he called Ziggy as soon as he heard the news. “Yeah, I mean, I wish he was here, so I could give him a big ol’ sloppy public kiss.”
When Ziggy came out years ago, Jeremy says, he was bummed out that he would never be able to get married. “Now he’s Mr. Sprinkle. 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.”
It’s not. Transgender rights are just now coming to the fore. And in many states across the country, North Carolina included, your employer can fire you for being gay or even if he suspects that you are gay, and that is perfectly legal. “The next fight is definitely employer nondiscrimination,” he says—and he would say that, being a labor guy, but I also suspect he’s right. How long can such laws exist when the Supreme Court has already said that LGBT individuals are protected under the 14th Amendment?
“The 14th Amendment is the best amendment,” Jeremy says. “The 14th Amendment is what makes all the other amendments real. … Equal protection under the law. It’s amazing. And it’s so important.”
Three years ago, when the Windsor decision struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, Ziggy and Jeremy were driving to Michigan to go to the Electric Forest Festival. That was the day he knew the dominoes were going to fall in the right direction, he says—and after that, court after court after court, with the exception of one, held that gays and lesbians were protected under that equal protection clause.
“It’s not meaningless that ‘Equal Justice Under the Law’ is inscribed above the entrance to the Supreme Court,” he says. “And, um”—short laugh—“it’s overwhelming.”
“It does get better, but it doesn’t get better because of a pithy ad campaign,” he says. “It gets better for the right reasons, because people worked and sacrificed. I’m so glad I’m alive today to experience this elation.”