Mark Heller (left) and Robert Oliver | Photo by John Cleland for GayTravel.com
When Mark Heller and his boyfriend of two years, Robert Oliver, stepped out of their West Hollywood home on Friday evening to celebrate the Supreme Court's landmark ruling on marriage equality, they had no clue that less than 48 hours later, their picture would be seen by millions all over the world.
By Sunday morning, the picture (of Robert wearing an American flag and Mark wearing a gay pride flag) had gone viral. They were on the cover of the Los Angeles Times, RollingStone.com's home page and in hundreds of other publications around the world. Friends started texting congratulations, the couple's Facebook feed was littered with screen grabs of the photo appearing in various places -- they had become the "face" of marriage equality, and you can't even see their faces. "It was a total surprise. Of course we immediately went to a coffee shop to get our morning energy and a stack of papers," Heller says. "As the town came to, more and more people kept sending us snapshots of the cover and notes of congratulations. Hard to imagine waking up to find you're on the cover of the L.A. Times!"
Still celebrating the ruling and understandably shocked by how quickly their photo has spread, the couple chatted with GayTravel.com about how the photo came to be, what the ruling means to them and the person they were most surprised to hear from on Sunday morning.
Where have you been most surprised to find the photo?
Mark: I was actually super happy to see it pop up on Rolling Stone. You definitely feel like a part of a cultural movement when you end up in Rolling Stone! My nerdy side liked seeing it in the Financial Times.
Robert: It's incredible how much that photo has been shared. I have gotten messages from friends all over the country and world -- England, Australia, and Israel. A friend sent over a screenshot of our photo in a Hebrew newspaper.
I'm imagining you got tons of text and calls from friends and family. Who were you most surprised to hear from? What did they say?
Mark: I got the best news ever from my mother. When I called her on Sunday afternoon to tell her that Robert and I had made the cover of the L.A. Times, she told me to hang on because she was on the other line with her mom. Apparently, my grandma, from Springfield, Missouri, not exactly our thriving SoCal metropolis, had seen us on the cover of her local paper that morning and was so proud.
Up until then, the whole thing was fun and amusing, but when I heard that the photo had ended up on my grandma's breakfast table, I really got a sense of how much the image had permeated the news coverage of the historic decision. I was so honored to be linked to such an important moment in history, especially one which held such a personal significance for me.
When the photographer asked if he could take your photo on Friday, did you have any sense how many places you'd wind up seeing it?
Mark: Goodness no! The photographer that asked us for our names said he worked for Getty, so we took a look at their website the next day, hoping just to find a copy of the photo for our personal collection.
Robert: We were just so elated--it was truly a euphoric day for both of us. I hadn't even considered the possibility of it getting picked up by the press.
What was the thought behind wearing an American flag and a gay pride flag? Was it spur of the moment or had you thought about it before the decision came down on Friday?
Robert: I have always loved my country, but I have never felt such a renewed sense of patriotism as I did that day. I don't typically drape myself in the flag! But that day I felt the flag fully represented me--I finally had not just tolerance or acceptance, but legitimacy and the respect of our nation's Supreme Court and President.
Mark: We probably both would have worn American flags if we had had two. This didn't just feel like a great day for the LGBT community, it felt like a great day for America.
Were you expecting Friday's ruling to be a positive one? What was your first thought when you heard marriage equality had been legalized in all 50 states?
Mark: The fight for marriage equality has been such a roller coaster ride that I try to expect nothing- but I was certainly hopeful. I was supremely disappointed to be a Californian in 2008 at the passage of Prop 8. I truly thought my open-minded progressive state had betrayed me. In 2013, I was reinvigorated when Prop 8 was finally overturned. And on June 26, 2015, I was positively buzzing! This huge community to which I belong was finally legitimized.
Robert: I worked full-time for the "No on 8 Campaign" in 2008, and on November 4th of that year I learned to always be cautiously optimistic about these battles. I had hoped for this outcome, but braced myself for the next fight if this one went the wrong way.
I couldn't believe it. I still can't. We have been fighting this piecemeal fight for marriage equality for decades, and while the tide was turning in our favor, each victory had its cost. That's not to say our work is complete, but we deserve to bask in this moment -- to revel in this new reality, full of new possibilities for us and countless generations of LGBT people to come.
Mark: It felt like America's way of saying, "OK, you're one of us."
This interview originally ran on GayTravel.com.