For many who had waited hours outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday to hear the outcome of two cases on the future of same-sex marriage, the first news arrived from a man who sprinted from the court building and stripped off his shirt to reveal a pink tank top.
The sight of the colorful undershirt was a signal: The highest court in the land had struck down key parts of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Those closest to the steps of the court who knew what the the pink shirt meant cheered and spread the word. Squinting in the sun, demonstrators farther away craned sweaty necks to see what was going on, while others pecked at smartphones for answers.
In all, thousands had gathered along the sidewalk in front of the steps of the courthouse, where they stood for hours beneath a blazing June sun in Washington, D.C., to hear how the justices would rule on DOMA and on the constitutionality of a state ban on same-sex marriage in California. Although polls show the nation at large is split on the issue, virtually all who brought signs to hold in front of the courthouse supported extending marriage rights to gay couples.
Capitol Hill staffers drenched in sweat beneath full business suits wandered through the crowds with activists and newlywed gay men and women, who held up pictures of their weddings. Some Catholics, Mormons and conservative activists who support redefining marriage also claimed spots near the steps.
The scene, however, was far different from the raucous demonstrations in March when the court heard oral arguments for both cases and thousands of anti-gay-marriage demonstrators marched on Washington. Today, only one man was spotted standing in opposition near the courthouse.
In the moments after word spread about the DOMA ruling, many in the crowd were skeptical. (Ironically, those outside the courthouse are often some of the last people after the cases to hear the outcomes. It's hot. It's crowded. Cellphone service is slow. When word spreads like a game of telephone, it's not always accurate.) Americans who follow the Supreme Court's rulings had been burned by bad information before, and they didn't want to be fooled again. After the botched reporting last year about the Supreme Court's ruling on the federal health care law, there was a clear hesitancy to spread false information. On Wednesday, activists with smartphones were cautious before tweeting wrong information or posting a note of celebration on Facebook.
Throughout the crowd, small circles formed like pods around men and women who pulled up the text of the ruling on their phones. The designated readers sounded out each word carefully, taking time to assess the majority opinion for subtle and possibly confusing statements. Law school graduates in the crowd helped explain what the ruling meant.
It wasn't long before a phrase rippled through the crowd.
"DOMA is dead!" people yelled. "DOMA is dead!"
But as the sun beat down on the wilting demonstrators, the celebration quickly quieted in anticipation of the court's decision on Proposition 8.
Near the northern corner of the steps, a group from the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington huddled beneath an umbrella to block the sun.
"I don't know why I'm not more emotional," one of the singers said to the group. "It must be because it's so damn hot right now." They seemed to concur.
When the court finally released its ruling—determining that those who challenged a lower court ruling overturning Proposition 8 did not have standing—activists in the crowd returned to their phones to parse the information. It was the same drill as the last ruling: Initial excitement. Skepticism. Circle up. Digest the ruling. Cheer.
The ruling wasn't exactly what many of them wanted—a national declaration legalizing gay marriage across the country—but both of the decisions combined was good enough. For them, it was a victory.
"I feel ecstatic," said Oscar Soto, a man from Reston, Va. "This is a big victory. This is a huge, huge victory. No one's disappointed today."
As demonstrators walked away from the courthouse, smiling, cheering and hugging one another, the Gay Men's Chorus gathered near the steps, and a conductor led them in the national anthem.
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