The Supreme Court hears oral arguments in two landmark cases concerning gay marriage this week. Justices will consider the legal merit and standing of challenges to California's Proposition 8 law banning gay marriage and to the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that defines marriage as being between one man and one woman.
With lawyers and justices taking the stage now, it's easy to forget that everyday people have a stake in this fight. Here are the stories of some of the people who hope the court will decide in their favor.
Edith "Edie" Windsor described her relationship with Thea Spyer as "joyful."
The couple married in Canada in 2007 before Spyer succumbed to multiple sclerosis two years later. This week, Windsor's fight for the federal government to recognize their union reaches the Supreme Court.
"If you live together for 42 years and you love each other all those years and take care of each other all of those years, how could marriage be different?" Windsor said in a video statement in 2010.
But the impact of the decision will not only be symbolic. Windsor paid heavy inheritance taxes after Spyer's death that she would have been exempt from had they been legally married in the eyes of the U.S. government.
"It certainly wouldn't have been as difficult if I had not had all of the money worries at the time," then-80 year-old Windsor said of her wife's death.
An article in the New Yorker Thursday pointed out some of the similarities in this case between the plaintiff and the justices who will hear her trial.
"She was born in Philadelphia, went to Temple, and then got a graduate degree (in mathematics) from New York University," the article read. "Windsor did very well at I.B.M., as an early systems engineer. Her wife died in 2009, the same year as did John O'Connor, whose wife, Sandra Day O'Connor, had, like Windsor, quit a job in which she was a pioneer to care for a spouse with a devastating, chronic illness. (Multiple sclerosis in Spyer's case, Alzheimer's in O'Connor's.)"
Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo met like many couples in the 21st century: online. Their first in-person meeting was a lunch date.
"It was a very interesting conversation and I really knew when we were finished with lunch that he was someone that I would like to see again," Zarrillo told ABC News.
The romance blossomed and, 12 years later, they are fighting to cement that bond in marriage in their home state of California.
"Anyone who's ever fallen in love out there knows you don't choose who you fall in love with. You just fall in love," Katami, a 40-year-old fitness instructor, told ABC News days before the oral arguments. "We were born gay. We were lucky enough to find each other. We have fallen in love, and the question isn't whether or not you believe it's something that you think is good or bad or new or cool or anything. The question is equality.
"We're just asking to be treated the same, so our marriage and our home doesn't negatively affect anybody else. It only benefits us."
Hear more from the couple at the heart of the Prop 8 case on "World News" this week.
For Kris Perry, being part of the case that could determine the legality of banning gay marriage in a state has been "an incredible experience."
"And it's turned out to be a historic one," Perry told reporters Thursday. "When we started out, what we really hoped to do was have proposition 8 repealed. As a couple and as a family, proposition 8 has been a really harmful and difficult chapter in our lives and the fact that we've ended up in the highest court really wasn't the intention, and it really wasn't expected, but here we are."
Perry and her partner, Sandy Stier, were married for a brief moment in 2004.
"But that was taken away very quickly," Perry said, referring to the decision by the California Supreme Court that invalidated nearly 4,000 marriage licenses of same-sex couples granted in San Francisco that year.
When Proposition 8 passed in California in 2008, the couple saw it as a turning point in the fight for same-sex marriage.
"For me, the passage of that bill -- that law -- was when I realized that something was terribly wrong," Perry said.
"We felt like our rights should not be subjected to a vote. We are a minority and the minority shouldn't have to have their rights be at the whim of the majority," Stier added.
When the arguments are all over and the court makes its decision, Perry hopes that she and the woman with whom she has built a home can be legally wed.
"Sandy and I want to be married. That's our story," Perry said. "We've been together for more than 13 years. We've raised four boys. We work very hard in our jobs and we take care of our home. There is nothing that would make that more real and permanent than the right to be married."
The questions before the court this week deal with issues that might seem difficult for a pre-teen to grasp -- the nature of love, commitment and protection from the state -- but at age 11, Cameron Myers Milne has her mind made up and wrote to President Obama and the Supreme Court justices to give them her opinion.
"My parents told me that the Supreme Court justices would be making decisions that would affect my parents' rights, and I couldn't just let them do that without knowing that I tried to affect their decision," Cameron told ABC News Thursday.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only one to write back, telling Cameron she could not discuss the case but that she should continue to follow her dreams.
The girl's mothers are Sheila Milne and Susan Myers, a lesbian couple that had been together for 15 years before they decided to have Cameron. For them, the court's decisions will make a practical difference, but it won't change the nature of their family.
"It might be different financially for my parents and I with Social Security benefits and everything, but they're always going to love me equally, no matter what," the sixth-grade said.
Milne said, "It may not make us a better parent. But behind the scenes, legally it helps us. We get legal protections. Right now we have issues with adoption and who is the rightful, legal parent of Cameron. ... We pay twice as much insurance on a monthly basis. We have to get powers of attorney specially written up so we can make medical decisions for Cameron and one another.
"We have no inheritance rights to each other. Cameron has no Social Security benefits from one of her parents, so it makes a huge difference for federal legal rights for the LGBT community to get married."
Myers said her daughter became inspired to write to the justices shortly after the family took a trip to Washington. When they were visiting Arlington Memorial Bridge, Cameron realized that on one side of the bridge, the state recognized her moms' marriage, and on the other side it didn't. A few weeks later she began working on her letter.
"She really wanted to speak from the heart and share … what she and her family look like and who she is," Milne added.
Watch for more from the Myers-Milne family on "World News" Tuesday.
There are three things Staff Sgt. Tracy Johnson of the North Carolina National Guard hopes to get out of the Supreme Court's decision on DOMA.
First, Johnson wants her wife's death certificate changed. When Johnson's wife, Donna, was killed while serving in Afghanistan, there was no casualty officer knocking on her door. Instead, they went to her mother-in-law's home because, under DOMA, the military does not recognize the couple's marriage, although they had been in a relationship for almost seven years.
"The only thing I will be able to reap from this is that I will get her death certificate changed from 'single' to 'married,'" Johnson told ABC News Thursday afternoon. "It would mean the country that we fought for, and she died for, that we mean as much to our country as our country meant to us.
"When I got the death certificate and it said she was single, I knew how the federal government viewed it. It was just a blow to the heart."
Next, Johnson wants to be afforded her status as a widow. To Johnson, being denied that honor stings, although she said other widows had taken her "under their wing and said you are one of us."
But, most of all, Johnson wants to make sure no other members of the U.S. military have to experience the same kind of heartbreak. She considers herself lucky, because it would have been easy for her in-laws to shut her out of all arrangements after Donna died.
"If I had not been in the military, if I had not had her family support me, there is a potential of being shut out completely," Johnson said.
That is what keeps her continuing to tell her story. "I just can't fathom that I had an opportunity to help someone not be put in this situation and to be recognized as a spouse," she said. "It would kill me internally if I didn't. As painful as this is to put our life out here on a public stage, it would kill me to know that I could have done something and turned my back.
"It's just too easy for someone else to have the potential of being shut out completely from the love of their lives."
At first glance, Republican Ken Mehlman seems like an unlikely champion for gay marriage. He served in as director of political affairs under a president who called for a constitutional amendment to restrict the bonds of matrimony to heterosexual couples. After that he served as chairman of the Republican National Committee at a time when the Republican Party was even more opposed to the issue than it is now.
But in 2010, Mehlman came out publically as gay, saying he wanted to honestly explain why he had donated to an organization that supported same-sex marriage.
"When I was at the RNC, I hadn't come to terms with it. I hadn't accepted it," Mehlman told ABC News in August of that year.
In the past few months, Mehlman has spoken out about his support for opening marriage up to couples regardless of sexual orientation.
He wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal in November, arguing that taking marriage out of the hands of the federal government would align with conservatives' core beliefs.
Then, he submitted in February an amicus brief to the Supreme Court along with 80 other Republicans advocating for gay marriage.
As unlikely as he may have once seemed, Mehlman has emerged as the most prominent Republican leading the fight to legalize marriage for same-sex couples.
Christine Allen and Ann Brown are scared about what this decision could mean for their marriage.
"I'm scared that if something happens to one of us, the other person won't be able to remain financially independent, that she won't have enough resources to survive, comfortably and safely on her own," Allen told ABC News in March.
Allen and Brown have been together for 27 years, married for five. At ages 57 and 61, respectively, they are mothers, grandmothers and aunts. They have a large, blended family that reflects the rest of America in its variety of ethnicities and ages.
In a conversation with Marriage Equality USA, Allen described one of the situations they faced as co-parents in a same-sex relationship while their children were growing up.
"I can't begin to describe the utter frustration when you are holding a feverish infant with whooping cough in the middle of the night, or your seven-year-old boy sobbing in pain from breaking his arm in a bicycle fall, or your four-year-old girl bleeding from accidentally putting her arm through a window, and emergency room staff are debating who the 'real' mother is and whether or not you have the 'right' to get the child treated," Allen told ME USA. "If you are married, you automatically have a legal right to that child and things proceed in a normal manner."
In this next stage of their lives, they're worried what the existing law means for them. But they're both excited for what could come out of this week: the validation of their relationship, the security of legal support.
"I think this is a wondrous time, I think it's incredible," Brown said.
"If marriage is made legal while we're both alive, while Ann and I are both alive, the huge fear goes away," Allen said. "We're at the point of life where we are …dealing with our own mortality. So we would have that reassurance that you know, if I pass … and we're legally married, and it was recognized at the federal level, Ann would be able to access my social security benefits. That's a financial security that for people of our age is very, very real."
The three stories that came before this packed an emotional punch, but to Joseph Backholm, executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, heartstrings have no place in federal policy.
"The reason that marriage exists has never been dependent on or connected to the emotional connections that people have," Backholm told ABC News Thursday.
Backholm pointed out that if two people stop loving each other, their marriage certificate "does not dissolve."
"From a policy perspective, a much better argument is that people are free to make whatever relationships they have, but marriage is a specific kind of reality that recognizes that every child has a mother and father," Backholm said.
To him and other traditional-marriage advocates who are hoping DOMA remains the law of the land after next week, that child needs both a mother and a father to live the best life possible.
"If you go on the street and just start asking people at random, 'Do you think it's good for a child to have a mother and father?' virtually everyone will say yes to that question," Backholm said. "Boys need fathers. Girls need mothers. And the converse is true as well."
In his own family, Backholm said he and his wife have different roles in their children's lives. He described her as "gentle" and "patient with small children," whereas he said he is "more physical in my interactions with them."
"I think the other side is making compelling emotional arguments about the way they wish things were, and frankly I'm sympathetic to that," Backholm said. "The world would be a better place if [children] didn't need adult mothers and fathers, if there was no impact. I'd prefer that. But the reality is there is an impact, and in an effort to make adults feel better, we can't change the reality of the universe.
"We are a gendered species and men and women and are different."
Religion plays a key role in the battle over defining marriage. In her most recent video for the series "What Mormons Belief," filmmaker Jolie Hales explains the Church of Latter-day Saints' complex position on homosexuality and gay marriage.
"Mormons … believe that God is the being that created the definition of marriage and when he did that, he created it to be between a man and a woman," Hales says in the video. "Because God created the definition of marriage, Mormons believe that it is not our right as people to change what God defined. That's why Mormons are so pro-traditional marriage.
"And I totally understand if you don't agree with that," she adds, holding her hands out as if to fend off the viewer's reaction, "but that really is the case and the truth about what Mormons believe regarding gay marriage."
Hales goes on to explain that gay people can still be Mormon without sinning, as long as they remain celibate or marry an opposite-sex partner.
"Now that's not always recommended for everybody, and it sounds kind of crazy," Hales says of the latter option, "but I have personal friends who are in that situation and living very happy lives.
"They argue that sexual attraction is only one part of us."
When the Supreme Court listens to arguments about same sex marriage Tuesday in what is expected to be an historic case, sitting in the audience as a guest of Chief Justice John Roberts will be his lesbian cousin.
In an open letter distributed by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Jean Podrasky writes, "Tomorrow, my cousin, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, will begin considering the fate of two of the most important cases impacting the rights of the LGBT community ever to go before the Court—the challenges to California's Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). "
"I want nothing more than to marry my wonderful girlfriend," states Podrasky, who lives in the San Francisco area.
"I know that my cousin is a good man. I feel confident that John is wise enough to see that society is becoming more accepting of the humanity of same-sex couples and the simple truth that we deserve to be treated with dignity, respect, and equality under the law.
"I believe he understands that ruling in favor of equality will not be out of step with where the majority of Americans now sit. I am hoping that the other justices (at least most of them) will share this view, because I am certain that I am not the only relative that will be directly affected by their rulings," Podrasky wrote.
Podrasky is the latest gay or lesbian person revealed to be related to or friends with a powerful politician, and the sense that everybody knows someone who is gay is affecting the political debate over gay rights and gay marriage.