As I write this column, word has come in that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down the heinous Clinton-era creation, the Defense of Marriage Act. In so doing, the court has recognized what more and more Americans have come to understand: that DOMA, which was expressly designed to discriminate against a specific class of people, is a blatant violation of equal rights.
In the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy, DOMA sought, “for no legitimate purpose,” to disparage and injure “those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”
Makes perfect sense, right? As does the decision that the plaintiffs defending the Prop 8 same-sex marriage ban in California had no standing to do so. No kidding, since no one leading California state government wanted any part of it.
What does this mean for gay and lesbian couples like myself and my husband? Well, I guess, as I just wrote on Facebook, it means “we’re not just a couple who got married in Massachusetts, we’re a joint-tax-filing, recognized-by-the-federal-government, married-like-the-rest-of-married-people couple who got married in Massachusetts. Florida, on the other hand…”
That’s the question: Florida. One of my Facebook friends suggested that the DOMA decision invites same-sex couples in Florida to demand marriage rights on the grounds that the state would be denying them federal benefits otherwise. That’s an interesting possibility. But the reality is we have no idea what possible outcomes and unintended consequences we’re in for. A New York Times report says that the Obama administration is now faced with the question of how much to overhaul references to marriage in all kinds of U.S. laws. And then there are the Republicans (and who knows, maybe some gay Dems) who suggest that this was a premature decision, destined to stir up decades of unrest à la Roe v. Wade because the mandate came down from the feds rather than up through the states.
But I wonder. This past weekend, I returned to Vermont for the first time in 10 years for a reunion of staffers in the Dean campaign. My husband was on the fundraising team for Dean, who in 2000 was the first governor to legalize civil unions for same-sex couples. He signed our own civil union certificate, in fact — our first legally binding document. (That Massachusetts marriage happened last year.)
It’s easy now, in light of the rapidly spreading approval of same-sex marriage, to forget what a momentous decision Dean’s was. In Vermont, of all places — liberal-seeming, crunchy-peaceful Vermont — the governor was told to wear a bulletproof vest as a result of his civil union stance. During the reunion, a former leader of the state legislature, John Tracy, told me about being shunned for months by his constituents after he helped get the bill passed.
And Dean himself told a story about another legislator, a social studies teacher, who lost his re-election as a result of his vote in favor of civil unions. The governor had told him his vote wasn’t needed, that he didn’t have to risk his seat. But he’d voted ‘yes’ anyway because he didn’t know how he’d explain a “no” vote to his 8-year-old son.
The upshot of these two stories? Tracy told me that an acquaintance of his, a man who wouldn’t look at him for months even to say hello, stopped him one day to apologize. “I’m sorry I treated you that way,” he told Tracy. “That [vote] had absolutely no impact on my life.” And the social studies teacher who lost re-election? He’s back in office.
So, despite the fears (or hopes) of certain parties, I don’t predict much of a backlash in reaction to today’s Supreme Court decisions. Thanks to the courageous actions of people like those civil union supporters in Vermont, and to the continued tireless work of organizations like HRC and Equality Florida, the momentum is on the side of LGBT equality.
That’s something this weekend that we can really feel proud of.