Loretta Weinberg, the now former New Jersey Senate Majority Leader, tracks how long she's worked on marriage equality issues by her granddaughter's age. She remembers a coalition of LGBTQ advocates gathered in her office to work on a domestic partnership bill when she got a call. On the other end, she heard her granddaughter cry for the first time.
Local transgender trailblazer Babs Siperstein put an arm around Weinberg and said, "I'm a grandfather, you know."
Legalizing same-sex domestic partnerships was the first step — taken long before the baby's first steps — toward marriage equality and the rights granted to committed couples. A few months after that baby turned 18, marriage equality finally became part of New Jersey law as a result of a bill Weinberg co-sponsored.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed the bill on Monday, Weinberg's last day in the Senate before she retires this month.
"This has been a long road for me and I've met wonderful people, I've been educated," Weinberg said. "It sort of brings things full circle."
It's been a long a road for LGBTQ couples in New Jersey as well. Same-sex marriage has been legal since a 2013 court ruling. But the bill, freshly approved by Murphy, secures marriage equality as state law.
The law protects marriage equality from "the whims of the staunchly conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court," said Christian Fuscarino, executive director of New Jersey's largest LGBTQ advocacy organization Garden State Equality.
"If the U.S. Supreme Court was to do the unimaginable and overturn marriage equality, this would now have no bearing on this sacred right in our state of New Jersey," he said.
Garden State Equality fought to secure marriage equality in New Jersey for nearly two decades, like Weinberg. A lawsuit the organization filed in 2011, Garden State Equality v. Dow, sparked momentum to provide same-sex couples with the same benefits as married people that led to the 2013 court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court required all states to recognize same-sex marriage two years later.
Learning about what marriage equality unlocks for couples drove Weinberg to push for legalization during her tenure. While her husband battled cancer that eventually took his life, Weinberg made decisions on his behalf. But same-sex couples at the time could not support their partners in the same way.
"[I heard] stories from same-sex committed couples, many of whom had been together 15, 20, 30 years … who couldn't get into a loved one's hospital room because they couldn't produce a marriage certificate, or couldn't make a health care decision," Weinberg said. "Having those experiences yourself and then listening to couples who are in these loving relationships … I think I understood it."
The law instructs all statutes regarding marriage and civil unions "should be read with gender neutral intent," according to the governor's office. It does not mention religious exemptions.
New Jersey was the 14th state to allow same-sex couples to wed in 2013.
Sammy Gibbons is a culture reporter for the USA TODAY Network's Atlantic Region How We Live team. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @sammykgibbons. For unlimited access to the most important news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: New Jersey Gov. Murphy signs law to protect LGBTQ marriage equality