September 19, 2020 at 10:59 am PDT | by Ted Osius
The Notorious RBG
Ruth Bader Ginsberg

From left: Then-U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius with his son Tabo, the late-Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Osius’ husband, Clayton Bond, with their daughter Lucy. (Photo courtesy of Ted Osius)

During our first year in Hanoi, we learned that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would visit, and that when she and her daughter Jane traveled they liked to stay in the homes of ambassadors. Encouraged by a friend, I wrote and asked if, while she stayed with us, the justice might consider officiating over a brief ceremony to renew our marriage vows.  She replied that she would be delighted.

Justice Ginsburg’s August 2015 visit came a few weeks after the Supreme Court decision on Obergefell v. Hodges, which enabled our union to be recognized in all 50 states. At a press conference in our home, Justice Ginsburg held in her hands a worn copy of the U.S. Constitution. 

Asked about the Obergefell decision, she walked through the history of marriage equality that led up to the Supreme Court’s historic decision. She said, “Change began in the states, starting with Massachusetts, and then the Supreme Court heard a case involving a criminal law penalizing same sex relations. The Supreme Court decided that was unconstitutional.”

The justice continued, “The next case to come to the court involved the law of another state in which LGBT people could not be protected by anti-discrimination laws. The Supreme Court declared that, too, was unconstitutional. You cannot take one group of people and put them outside the protection of the law,” she added.

RBG concluded, “By the time the court decided the Obergefell case, there were already small steps in the direction of marriage equality and a good number of states recognized it. So the Supreme Court was taking not a large step but one further step in the direction that was begun at least 10 years earlier.” 

Social change, the justice argued, began at the state level and that’s what made it broadly acceptable. She did not argue that Vietnam should follow the United States in making marriage equality the law of the land. She concluded, simply, that social change leads to legal change.

When Justice Ginsburg renewed our vows, we hoped to show the people of Vietnam that family was possible, too, for LGBT+ people. Our son and daughter participated in our renewal of vows. I held our 19-month-old son in my arms. When his 5-month-old sister began to cry, a caretaker held her out of sight of the friends and colleagues who had gathered.

Ten years before, when we took our vows the first time, they mattered mostly just to the two of us. This time, those vows mattered also for two small people who are like our hearts outside our bodies.  

This second time of stating our vows, when I placed a ring on Clayton’s finger and reaffirmed my commitment “to have and to hold … from this day forward through all our life together,” our son lunged from my arms into Clayton’s. Perhaps because we love our children so fiercely, and because we know better now what marriage means, those vows have only grown in significance.

During Justice Ginsburg’s visit, my friend Thao Griffiths came to our aid. As the notorious RBG was an art lover, Thao took Justice Ginsburg, Jane, and her hosts (us) to the gallery of Thanh Chuong, a talented expressionist. Thao held RBG’s hand as we toured Chuong’s studio. RBG took home not only a magnificent painting, but “a friend for life.”

Toward the end of our reception celebrating a renewal of wedding vows, Justice Ginsburg pulled Thao aside and said, “Thao, sometimes in life you meet somebody and the chemistry just works. You are one of those people. I want to tell you that I LOVE YOU! Justice Ginsburg gave me the most loving and tight hug ever. Tears just came down my cheeks!”

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Chapter 11 of “Nothing Is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam” to be published by Rutgers University Press in 2021.

Ted Osius is the former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam.

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