The Love Story Behind an Iconic Photo

John Becker & Michael Knaapen | Washington, D.C.

In the hours before June 26, 2013, John Becker knew that it was finally the big day: the last scheduled day that the United States Supreme Court had scheduled time to release its ruling on two lawsuits dealing with the freedom to marry - one that tackled California's Proposition 8, and one that challenged the so-called Defense of Marriage Act.

Every day that week, John - and hundreds of other supporters of the freedom to marry - flocked to the steps of the Supreme Court, anxious to see what the Court would rule. The court's policy is not to reveal ahead of time which rulings would be announced on which day, so each day was a guessing game, and the entire month of June had been a waiting game.

But John knew that it was finally the day that history would be made, whether it fell in support of LGBT couples and their families or against them. When that became clear, he turned to his husband of 7 years, Michael, and asked if he would join the crowd at the Supreme Court the following morning, too.

"We were finally given the simple dignity and respect of being acknowledged by our country. And that change happened in an instant."

Michael had just begun a new full time job in Virginia, and after he explained the potential significance of the day to his new boss, he was permitted time off to join his husband as the rulings were released. 

Armed with a sign that reads, "Married with Pride" and wearing shirts that proclaimed that love is love for all couples, John and Michael traveled to the Supreme Court. Just before ten, every smart phone in the crowd went on overdrive, every few seconds refreshing SCOTUSBlog, the website devoted to real-time tracking of Supreme Court actions.

Finally, at just over 10:00am, the first ruling came through, and John threw his head up, unleashed a flood of warm tears, clutched Michael with all his might, leaned his forehead on Michael's face, and grinned, rocked by the magnitude of what had just happened: The Supreme Court had struck down the central part of DOMA, and legally married same-sex couples like him and Michael would finally be granted federal respect.

"We felt amazement and disbelief and gratitude and relief all at once," John explained. "It was just this huge flood of emotions coming from the fact that finally, after so many years, Michael and I were federally recognized as married - we were finally given the simple dignity and respect of being acknowledged by our country. And that change happened in an instant."

The next day, photos capturing the exact moment that John and Michael learned that the core of DOMA was dead were distributed around the world, published on the cover of over 70 newspapers and appearing on countless blogs, social media platforms, and websites.

"It was surreal to see that intimate moment go out and become one of the images of that amazing day," John said. "But if it helps even one person who picked up the newspaper in Clarksville, Tennessee or Hattiesburg, Mississippi or Tulsa, Oklahoma - if it helps them see the humanity behind this issue and embrace equality, it will have been worthwhile."

* * *

John and Michael are no strangers to urging members of their communities to consider why marriage matters to them and other same-sex couples like them. Ever since they've become a couple, they have spoken out about the freedom to marry and why no couple should be denied the basic protections and joys of being able to marry the person they love. 

The men met while performing in a summer community theater production of Beauty and the Beast in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Michael played Gaston's sidekick, and John was a member of the chorus.

"It was a show-mance that stuck, basically," John explained. "When we met and started dating, we were just drawn to each other. It's hard to explain, but it's almost like on some level we each knew that this person was different - that he was the one."

On March 22, 2006, John and Michael, still college students, traveled from Wisconsin to Toronto in Canada during their spring break. They were set to tie the knot and declare their love for each other in a country where same-sex couples had the freedom to marry.

"I sometimes joke that most people go to Fort Lauderdale during spring break - but we got married," John said.

It was important for John and Michael to make a legal commitment to each other - and at the time, the only couples in the United States who could legally marry where couples who lived in Massachusetts or expressed intent to reside there. At the same time, they understood that the commitment would not be granted respect back in Wisconsin, or at the federal level in the United States.

"We knew that our legal marriage wouldn't be recognized at home," John said. "But we didn't want to wait for the government to catch up with the reality of our hearts. Our wedding day was the best day of our lives." 

* * *

Almost immediately after they returned to Wisconsin, however, John and Michael found themselves thrust into an impassioned, hurtful debate about marriage when a constitutional amendment was proposed to restrict marriage in Wisconsin to only different-sex couples. A state statute already existed in Wisconsin denying same-sex couples the freedom to marry, but the constitutional amendment sought to enshrine discrimination into the constitution.

The amendment, Referendum 1, was one of many similar amendments pushed through by anti-gay forces in the late 1990s and early 2000s, an attack designed to thwart same-sex couples for political gain before the American people had a real opportunity to reflect on why marriage matters to all families. 

The amendment was set for a vote in November 2006, so when John and Michael returned from their trip to Canada to get married in March, they knew they needed to stand up and proudly declare their love, encouraging their fellow Wisconsin residents to truly examine the amendment.

"The loss in 2006 galvanized us and hardened our resolve to keep fighting. There's nothing that we'll fight harder for than each other."

"When you're just married, you have this newlywed glow, this excitement around you," John said. "But then to turn around and have to ask your fellow citizens to not doubly ban your marriage, it's humiliating. It felt like you had to beg people you grew up with and lived with and knew for years - like you were pleading with them: Please don't erase our marriage. Please don't slap us in the face."

John and Michael volunteered with state groups doing great work mobilizing voters and getting out the word about the harms of the amendment. But on November 7, 2006, Referendum 1 was approved.

"It felt like a punch in the gut," John said. "You'd walk down the street or talk to people on the phone, and you'd always wonder in the back of your mind whether that person who told you to have a good day was somebody who just voted to insult and hurt and ban the single most important relationship you'll ever have."

Three years later, in August 2009, Wisconsin implemented a domestic partnership law, which extended limited protections - but none of the dignity and respect of marriage - to same-sex couples and their families. It was a step forward, and it wouldn't have happened without advocates like John and Michael speaking out. 

"The loss in 2006 was a profoundly demoralizing experience," John said. "But it also galvanized us and hardened our resolve to keep fighting. There's nothing that we'll fight harder for than each other."

* * *

It's appropriate, really, that the photo of John and Michael at the Supreme Court became so iconic. As a couple who has fought for the freedom to marry and spoken up about why marriage matters again and again during their 8-year relationship, it makes sense that this moment of triumph with the dismantling of DOMA would be so euphoric.

Now, John and Michael live in Washington, D.C. Michael works in risk management, while John works as the Managing Editor for The Bilerico Project, an LGBTQ blog, and publishes on The Huffington Post. They're still speaking out for the freedom to marry - and they won't stop until the rest of the country moves forward. 

Even though they no longer live in Wisconsin, John and Michael are still deeply invested in winning equality in the state where they were born, where they grew up, and where they spent so many years of their lives.

"We're now in D.C., but we have friends, family members, and a community in Wisconsin," John said. "It breaks my heart every time I hear about the continued discrimination they face just because of who they love. Thankfully, there are so many people working hard to make the climate better for LGBT Wisconsinites." 

"We know that this amendment isn't going to be around forever," John added. "One way or another, it will fall, and the freedom to marry will come to Wisconsin. It will happen. And when it does, it will make life immeasurably better for the state's LGBT community and close the book on the Badger State's hurtful history of marriage discrimination."

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