photo courtesy Dante Atkins

Last night in West Hollywood, close to a thousand supporters of marriage equality, including many of the 18,000 same-sex couples legally married in California and other same-sex families who have been denied that right, laughed, hugged and celebrated Judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling in the Prop 8 trial, which invalidated the gay marriage ban in California. Ted Olson and David Boies, the one-time adversaries who came together on this case to represent the plaintiffs in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, addressed the crowd in an event that took on the image of a campaign rally after a primary victory.

Speaking in front of a large banner of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, festooned with American flags, and flanked by the plaintiffs in the case and several same-sex families, Boies and Olson thanked the crowd for their support and vowed to keep fighting until all Americans had full equality under the law. Boies, who lost to Olson in the Bush v. Gore case before the Supreme Court, said that Perry v. Schwarzenegger was the most satisfying case of his entire career. “Because this case is about people who had to go out and risk themselves, their security, their health, their lives… This victory is for the foundation and for the plaintiffs, but it is for you, it is for America.”

Afterwards, as if they were two politicians headed to their national nominating convention, Olson and Boies descended from the dais to the strains of songs like “Born in the USA” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” They reached out to people who lined up in front of the stage, taking pictures and exchanging words of appreciation. One man went up to Boies and exclaimed “No rational basis! No rational basis!” Honestly, it looked like Boies/Olson just won the Nebraska primary or something. (I have video of some of Boies’ speech and of the receiving lines, and well as some additional color, which I’ll try to put up later today.)

The American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is funding the effort, took the opportunity to do some organizing. They asked the crowd to text a donation to their foundation through their cell phones. I saw other groups, like Equality California, signing people up at the event. This was a celebration, but also another step in a civil rights movement, and while the mood was jubilant, those gathered were mindful that this is just another milestone along a long path, and that they must continue to be vigilant. You’re seeing a potent political force emerging through this movement. I know there’s a strain of thought that this lawsuit pushed too far too fast and may cripple the marriage equality movement, but that’s an analytic, legalistic view, and one that results in endless delays of justice, I might add. From an emotional standpoint, and a community organizing one, this lawsuit is the best thing that could possibly have happened.

Three of the hundreds in attendance happened to have some personal ties to me. Onstage last night, behind Boies, Olson, some of the plaintiffs and the legal team were my cousin, his husband, and their young son (they’ve been quoted in the papers, but I’m just going to not use their names here). They joined a number of families at the event on the dais, projecting a powerful image of those who saw their rights restored by this ruling. My cousin and his partner are actually among the 18,000 couples who married after the state Supreme Court ruling in May 2008, and who are still considered legally married in California even after Prop 8. But this personal situation doesn’t satisfy them. “It feels like being a free slave in a slave state,” said my cousin’s husband. “It’s fine for us, but we want everyone to have the right to marry.”

My cousin told me that the event last night signified a hope for a better day. “I’ll tell you, after Prop 8 passed, there were days when we thought about moving to Canada,” he said. “But you stay here and fight, and today, with the ruling, was so inspiring, and hopeful, and it makes you want to finish the job.”

That’s what everyone at the rally kept saying: Great day, great day. Not a triumph, but one day closer to that eventuality.