USA TODAY - They are in their mid-60s now about the average age of a Supreme Court justice.
But in 1969, at a seedy Greenwich Village bar called the Stonewall Inn, they were rebellious gays and lesbians who lit a fuse that has burned ever since and is about to reach the nation's highest court.
Then, it was a battle for basic human dignity - the right to gather in public without being harassed. Today, it's a battle for perhaps the last major right still denied: marriage.
Over two days later this month, the Supreme Court will consider whether states can deny that right and, where it is granted, if federal benefits can be withheld. For aging veterans of the Stonewall riots, those historic debates and the rulings to follow in June could complete a journey begun 44 years ago.
"The idea of marriage wasn't even in sight" in June 1969, says Martin Boyce, 64, who was among scores of gay youths who tangled with police over several tense nights. "The Supremes, to us, were a singing group."
Little did they know that 44 years later, the president of the United States would mention Stonewall in his inaugural address, equating it with Seneca Falls, N.Y., and Selma, Ala., the respective birthplaces of women's suffrage and racial equality.
Nor did they imagine that "the Supremes," the justices who represent the third branch of government, would devote four hours to landmark cases that could redefine marriage from California where Proposition 8's ban on gay marriage is challenged to New York, where the federal Defense of Marriage Act is on the chopping block.
All they wanted at the end of the '60s was to be left alone free of organized crime protection and police raids - to drink and dance.
"I was forced to meet people in bars that were owned by the Mafia. I was basically pushed into a criminal environment. Society pushed us underground," recalls Danny Garvin, who was 20 at the time. "All I would have told you is that 'I want to get back in the bar and dance.' I wasn't aware of what I didn't have."
Jerry Hoose and Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt were just street kids seeking a good time. Forty years later, they were in the East Room of the White House and posing for photos with President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on the 40th anniversary of Stonewall.
"The riots at Stonewall gave way to protests, and protests gave way to a movement, and the movement gave way to a transformation that continues to this day," Obama said then.
Hoose recalls "fighting to end harassment, to get equal rights, basic rights" at Stonewall and in the months that followed, when the Gay Liberation Front was formed. "At that time, it was so completely out of even our imaginations, something like marriage equality," he says.
Two years later, in 1971, Randy Wicker was behind a video camera as gay rights protesters took over the New York City Marriage Bureau to protest the city clerk's criticism of their "ceremonies of holy union," held to consecrate long-term gay and lesbian relationships.
Then and now, many in the gay rights movement didn't covet traditional marriage.
"I used to say to people, 'Marriage? I should get married and pay somebody palimony for the rest of my life?' " Wicker says. "I did not become a gay activist to become a cookie-cutter copy of a heterosexual."
Yet in 1990, as his partner lay dying of AIDS, Wicker arranged for an Episcopal priest to "marry" them in his apartment. And today, he acknowledges, "You can't have an equal society and say some people can do this and some people can't."
Edmund White, 73, a Princeton University professor, author and gay rights activist who happened upon the Stonewall riots as they raged, is marrying his partner, Michael Carroll, this spring but not because they're huge fans of marriage.
Because they live in New York, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2011, they must wed so that Carroll can stay on White's health insurance policy until now permitted by the university under New Jersey's civil unions law.
"Neither of us ever wanted to be married," White says. But to maintain benefits, he says, the university is "insisting that if gays can marry, they must marry."
Boyce and his 64-year-old partner also are tying the knot this spring. "It's no big thing," Boyce says. "We're just doing it."
Hoose has had three long-term relationships, but he says he never would have wanted to get married. "I sort of don't even believe in it as far as heterosexual couples are concerned," he says.
Still, he sees marriage equality as the "last barrier" to full equality. The Supreme Court cases, he says, are "very scary to me" because of the justices' conservative tilt. "We're in the hands of Justice (Anthony) Kennedy," Hoose says, referring to the court's swing vote.
White, the first president of the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York City, worries that conservative justices such as Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas won't rule in favor of gay marriage. "I'm not sure this is the right court to hear the case," he says. "But the fact that it is hearing the case at all seems astonishing to me."
And now that the justices are considering both California's Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage and the Defense of Marriage Act's ban on federal benefits, Garvin predicts trouble if either one is upheld.
"If the court denies me my basic rights," he says, "they will probably this time see a bigger riot on their hands than they did that night at Stonewall."
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