The line began 71 hours before the case opened on the floor of the Supreme Court.
Eddie Reynoso was the first to arrive. He set up his camp chair, rolled out his sleeping bag and told his friends to put their phones on loud. As soon as a second person joined him on the pavement by the steps, he told them, they’d have to run. It could be less than an hour before there was someone to claim each of the approximately 50 seats open to the public in the gallery of the courtroom.
Soon, there would be 63 people sleeping outside the Supreme Court, waiting more than two full days to watch the justices debate an explosive question: Can employers legally fire someone for being gay or transgender?
On Tuesday, the Court will hear from three plaintiffs who claim they were fired because they identify as gay or transgender, ultimately deciding whether gender identity and sexual orientation are covered by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. The employers, backed by the Trump administration, are arguing that sex discrimination refers to bias against only women or men. “The ordinary meaning of ‘sex’ is biologically male or female,” wrote Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco. “It does not include sexual orientation.”
It’s an argument that a lot of people want to watch. Lines for Supreme Court cases on hot-button political issues, like gay rights or abortion, regularly stretch for days. The people in this kind of line often represent the far ends of any particular issue, making it a rare occasion when the two sides are forced to sit and sleep next to each other — and maybe, after a while, start to talk.
Reynoso, who has flown in from San Diego, knows how these things usually go. He was number 36 in line to watch Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage. Today, his chair is flanked by three full-size flags — one American, one rainbow, and one pink, blue and white to represent the transgender community. When it rained on Monday night, he covered everything with a thin plastic sheet, securing the edges with jumbo binder clips. There is a strict no-structures policy, so it’s the closest he can get to a roof.
Some people in line are here because they’re paid to be. Advocacy organizations on both sides of the issue hire “line-standers,” holding spots for lawyers or lobbyists who will switch in at the last minute.
Reynoso is here because he loves the discussions the line starts. He fields questions all day, explaining why he’s there and why he thinks this case is so significant. Overwhelmingly, he says, he’s been hearing from people who are shocked to hear that gender identity and sexual orientation are not already protected statuses under federal law.
“When someone hears that there’s a guy camping out for three, four, five days, they’re going to wonder, why is this so important to him?”
Kate Kramer, about a dozen paces back in line, says she’s here because she’s “terrified.”
“I mean, I’ve been really fortunate,” says Kramer, a 33-year-old photographer based in Washington, D.C., who identifies as queer and bisexual. “I haven’t had problems with that yet in my career. But you never know what kind of boss you're going to get."
Kramer and Reynoso are both hyper-aware that not everyone in line sees this case the way that they do.
The first night, Reynoso and his friends passed around a pencil and a piece of paper, collecting names so that people can leave to grab food or use the bathroom without worrying about losing their spot.
A large group near the front is affiliated with a conservative legal group, said multiple people who had spoken to them. When Reynoso asked for their names, he told them he’d be sharing the list with an LGBT archive. “We’re a part of history,” he told them.
“They all kind of stepped away from me at that point,” he says. “So I just touched this guy on the shoulder and said, ‘You know, it’s not contagious.’” (Members of the group declined to comment, except to confirm that the game they were playing was, indeed, “Magic: The Gathering.”)
“You should not come to wait to get into oral arguments if you want to be surrounded by people who are on your side,” says Kramer, who has pitched her chair a few feet from a group of high school boys. One drank from a water bottle covered with stickers with slogans like “Defund Planned Parenthood,” “Don’t tread on me” and “Raised Right,” featuring the Republican elephant. “But that doesn’t mean that it’s not, you know, kind of rough.”
While their conversations are “nothing [she] hasn’t heard before,” Kramer says, it’s hard not to be able to get up and walk away. “Usually when this happens, I’m able to feel like I’m in control of the situation, because I can always just get away from it,” she says. She decided Monday afternoon to go home for her rainbow bandanna.
“I was just like, ‘I’m done closeting myself.’”
Rachel Husta, a 22-year-old college student at the University of California at Irvine, does what she can to keep things friendly. She announces trips to Starbucks loudly enough that everyone around her can hear, taking orders and bringing back coffees. Other people in line have been generous, too: Sunday night, someone offered up free pizza. When a group of students stopped by to bring Reynoso a tray of homemade cinnamon buns — the day before, he told them he’d been craving Cinnabon — he passed them around.
There are some things in line that bring everyone together — like when the sprinklers went off at 4 a.m. Monday, spraying a dozen people, or when Reynoso responded to the sprinklers with his best rendition of “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast.
“Yes, that’s the one,” says a friend of Reynos, rolling his eyes as Reynos begins revising his performance. “That was four o’clock this morning.”
Some seasoned line-waiters do what they can to help out people who don’t know the drill as well as they do. One of Reynoso’s friends noticed that one of the Magic-The-Gathering players had a sleeping bag that was soaked through. He invited him back to the Airbnb that he’d rented as a home base for meals and bathroom breaks, so they could put the sleeping bag in a dryer.
There is a certain energy in the line, says Desiree Valiante, 20. She’d only slept three hours the night before, she said. She had too much adrenaline. Looking over at the Capitol building, directly across from the Supreme Court, she said, she felt like she was part of something big.
To Reynoso, the waiting always feels historic. It is 6 p.m. on Monday — 13 hours before the Court starts letting people in the building — when a man comes over, and asks him how long he’s been in line.
“I’m actually one of the plaintiffs for the case tomorrow,” the man says, introducing himself as William Moore, the husband of the late Dan Zarda, a skydiving instructor who says he was fired for being gay.
“I was hoping to get a picture with the first person in line.”