In 1996, under re-election pressure, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act, a U.S. federal law that allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted under the laws of other states. After numerous appeals were brought against the law over the following years, it wasn’t until Wednesday, June 26th 2013 that the Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional in the case of United States v. Windsor. Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered the court’s opinion, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
This historic decision brings a marked change to the way the government views and treats married same-sex couples through federal programs that are linked to being married. Same-sex married couples in states that have legalized same-sex marriage will soon be able to enjoy benefits including military family benefits, social security benefits, multiple areas of tax categories, hospital visitation rights, and healthcare benefits.
While this is a big step, there is still a long way to go in the fight for marriage equality. While the ruling applied to the federal government, it doesn’t change state laws that exclude same-sex couples from state-conferred marriage rights. By August 2013, there will be thirteen states that have legalized same-sex marriage. While we still have a long way to go, we should take a moment to celebrate this landmark decision abolishing a law that discriminated against the individual’s right to marry whom they love.
In 2004, I spent the November 2nd election night at the Oregon Convention Center. I was the leader of the Concordia University Young Democrats branch, and since we were only five strong, we all got in to the Democrat’s ballroom watch party. I don’t remember the food or the decorations, or even what was said as we lost state after state on the screen to that garish blotch of crimson. What I remember was making my way through the increasingly maudlin hordes down to the center’s lower level, to a smaller banquet room where the “No on 36” team had gathered.
Measure 36 was amendment to the Oregon state constitution, defining marriage as between one man and one woman. The Young Democrats crew campaigned against writing discrimination into our state’s constitution on-campus, as the religious majority of the student body handed out “In Defense of Marriage” DVDs and those stickers depicting a stick man and woman equaling love. I thought that my newly adopted state was bigger than my small campus’s bigotry.
But Oregon State is not Multnomah County. And the measure was approved with a sweeping 57% of the vote. Downstairs in No’s banquet room, I became lost in a sea of crying couples. People who loved each other, who only wanted the same rights their neighbors enjoyed as Americans, clutching each other in the dim light of televisions. Unlike the ballot supporters, they had lost something. They had lost a human right; dignity for their love. What had Yes on 36 won, exactly? They were just as married as ever, with the added bonus of belittling those they refused to understand.
I broke down, alone without my Democrat friends, and somehow in the chaos the head organizer of “No on 36” saw me. She walked away from the KOIN news cameras and embraced me, my salty disappointment and anger dripping onto her shoulder. “This isn’t over,” she promised. “We’ll win this someday.”
When news broke during my Wednesday office commute that DOMA had been overturned, I had to pull over my car to cry the same tears. I thought of every couple in that room, finally able to embrace their loved ones with good news. I thought of those students in the quad nearly 10 years ago, wondering how they would explain their intolerance to their children. I remembered that woman and her promise, and thought of the high-fives and cheers now erupting around her. I felt pride in a world that, over the course of my twenties, has grown by leaps and bounds. I felt the enormity of winning something consequential.
Do the Right Thing
When I was in high school, I didn’t support the marriage equality movement. Not because I didn’t believe in same sex marriage, but I didn’t think enough Americans did and it would be a waste of time and money to push forward a premature change. Perhaps in a decade or so, people would be more able to see that gays are citizens and deserve the pursuit of happiness. Sure enough, a decade later we get the collapse of DOMA in favor of sates rights. Hopefully, within another decade all states will legalize gay marriage or the federal government will assert its authority to make sure that gay citizens are treated like every other citizen, not only in terms of marriage, but in terms of legal protections for housing, education, and employment.
Was I right to discourage marriage equality efforts simply because I expected them to fail? If there are only so many resources, it makes practical sense to push for the causes that are more likely find success. I had the luxury of not being gay enough to expect to be affected by DOMA. It was simple for me to make a cost-benefit analysis on other people’s freedoms. But civil rights movements have to start in adversity before they can build momentum. And is anyone ever justified to postpone doing the right thing?
Between Love and Hate
As I was cobbling together pictures for this Collective Response, I was brought to tears by the pictures of gay men and women in each others’ arms on their wedding days or at rallies. The people in these pictures are my friends, my coworkers, my mentors, and, well, there’s one of me holding up a poster and protesting Proposition 8 right next to this sentence. But before that Prop 8 rally, I was a high schooler in Eugene, Oregon, befuddled by the growing opposition to gay marriage, when this seemed to me an essential civil right. And after Prop 8, there was this cover and the powerful letter from Santa Barbara that seemed to me a novel in a paragraph.
If you’re a writer, you cannot be closed-minded about sexual orientation and through the PDXX Collective, I’ve been lucky to come across some outstanding from our writers on the subject, be it Jessica’s forthcoming novel, this piece from Francesca, or Trish’s heartbreaker of a story, Erasure. Bigotry frustrates my logic and dries up my patience.
But of course the overturning of DOMA is about more than good story-telling. I hope that the now-federally protected marriages of our nation’s gays and lesbians and everything in between are no longer cluttered with the justice system’s fondness for bigotry.
Knock ‘Em Down
When you’re gay and hoping to make your love legal, you have multiple anniversaries for every time you achieved some kind of new status: The day you had a ceremony, but nothing was legal; the day you were able to file as domestically partnered, but not married; the day your state allowed you to get “married”; the day your country allowed you to call it marriage. It’s crossing one state line and being something other than what you were when you look in your rearview mirror. Abolishing DOMA hasn’t solved all the problems that come along with being a second class citizen. We’d be crazy for thinking it could. But pretending like it is a small step is doing ourselves a bigger injustice. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating victories and using them to propel us forward in passing ENDA and putting forth efforts to keep LGBT people safe, healthy, employed and with roofs over our heads. We deserve all of these things, and yes, it’s bull shit we have to attack them one at a time like shakily aiming at beer bottles with a shotgun. We’ll knock them down with practice, and now we’ve gotten one of the big ones out of the way.
My wife and I are the most thoroughly married unmarried people I know. We had a commitment ceremony in 2001 before gay marriage was really on the horizon. Then we got a civil union in Vermont, the first state to offer civil unions. We later married in Multnomah County in Oregon, but that marriage got annulled when Oregon passed Constitutional Amendment 36 which banned gay marriage. Finally we got a domestic registered partnership, which gives us the rights of married people but only in Oregon. That’s about 15 years of committed partnership without an actual marriage.
The week before the DOMA ruling I braced myself for anything. My wife is a judge, so I knew the law was in our favor. I also knew how courts can sneak around the law. I told myself I didn’t care, not personally. I told myself my relationship was more than a piece of paper. I reminded my self of my mother’s mantra: the best revenge is a well-lived life. I had that.
Then the morning of the DOMA ruling I woke to a text from my wife who was already up and off to work. “Will you marry me?” it read. And I realized I did care. Hugely. I want a marriage that is recognized on par with my parents’, my friends’, and my colleagues’ marriages.
I want that for me, but more importantly I want that for every twelve-year-old kid who is feeling the first intimation of sexual attraction and realizing it’s for the same gender. I want gay marriage for the kid I once was and for every LBGT child that follows after me. I can survive without the symbolic approval gay marriage provides because I am grown with a wife and friends and family who love me. But there are people out there for whom this symbol is the first real benediction. It is the first time our country has really acknowledged the full humanity of LBGT people and that is definitely worth celebrating.
Future Complications: Work left to be done . . .
We have ruled Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional, allowing federal recognition of legal marriage and the privileges of most federal laws and programs (power of attorney, hospital visitation rights, Social Security, veterans’ benefits, health insurance and retirement savings) but I think, rather foolishly we left intact Section 2, which allows states to deny marriages that are legal in other states.
The three major complications all deal with the leftover issue of marriage recognition being a state-by-state debate. 1) The ability to grant child custody; 2) The ability to issue marriage-based green cards; 3) Tax filing becomes more complicated in a state where same-sex marriage is NOT recognized because tax status is normally dictated by the state where you live. All of these rules are a simple matter of changing them administratively and The IRS is currently reviewing the Supreme Court ruling in order to advise on future (or amending) tax returns.
Primarily, all of these complications have a far-reaching impact on families with children. Again, the integrity of families in same-sex couples becomes a battleground where children are concerned. The detractors outright claim or imply that children are “better off” with straight parents (“a mother and a father”) — a “study” which compares two-parent homes to single-parent homes, not gay vs. straight parenting households.
In the case of military families, DOMA being struck down is a legal affirmation and extension of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The federal government and military recognizes medical insurance, access to military facilities, and family separation allowance, all which follow the person’s military career whether or not they are stationed in a state or country where same-sex marriage isn’t legal. If something should happen to the active duty spouse during deployment, the partner left behind will be protected.
This is not the case for children of same-sex couples and it leaves a terrifying level of uncertainty if a spouse should die and the children who would naturally stay with their parents would be left in adoption limbo.
There will be anomalies of this sort that arise when offering half-measures instead of across the board equality. John Lewis, the legal director of Marriage Equality USA, boiled it down to two sentences: “Discrimination is complicated. Equality is remarkably simple.”