Why DOMA Must Go
President Obama has often said that he supports civil unions, even though he does not support full-fledged marriage equality for gay and lesbian families (due more to political expedience than personal conviction, one suspects, given that in 1996 he did support marriage equality). Last week, in saying that the so-called "Defense of Marriage" Act should be abolished, the Obama Administration took a concrete step forward in solidifying the president’s pro-equality stance. (Certifying that the military is ready to work harmoniously with openly gay and lesbian servicemembers -- the final step in the repeal of DADT -- as Obama did on July 22, is an even bigger step, and a signature accomplishment.)
DOMA is an anti-gay federal law that was signed by then-President Bill Clinton in 1996. DOMA ignores the Constitution’s "full faith and credit" clause, which says that any contract legally entered into in any of the states in the union must be honored and enforced in all of the states. According to DOMA, gay and lesbian families are the exception: Their civil marriages, which legally are contracts, may be dismissed by any state that looks down on same-sex couples and the people who comprise them.
And let’s be clear about this: When we are told, as we have been innumerable times, that gay and lesbian couples entering into wedlock "diminishes" and "devalues" marriage, it’s not a sentiment borne purely out of reverence for an institution that is both a legal contract and -- for those who get a church or temple wedding -- a religious sacrament. If it were, then no such rhetorical backhanding would be called for.
The reason marriage is "diminished" by gay and lesbian participation in the eyes of the anti-marriage crowd is simply this: They think that gays are dirty, lesbians have "chosen" to dishonor and abandon their femininity, and the whole business of people of the same gender loving one another in tender commitment is "sinful."
In fact, it’s often the case that the anti-marriage won’t even speak of love, devotion, commitment, and obligation when it comes to same-sex unions. Instead, they talk about sex -- the more prurient and unorthodox, the better. Gay male couples see the complexity of their relationships reduced to a single sexual act, anal intercourse, except, of course, where they see the intricate and wondrous love they share reduced to two sexual acts -- anal intercourse and fisting. It’s an infuriating state of affairs, not least because this sort of rhetoric is so effective. Instead of loving couples, mainstream America is coached to see sexually sadistic satyrs, cloven-hoofed beasts of the dark and demonic woods writhing in unholy carnal congress.
Naturally, when mainstream America then goes to the ballot box to vote on our rights as individuals and as families, they have little compunction about throwing those rights into the legal incinerator. After all, they’ve been told that we’re not human beings who ennoble marriage and are ennobled by it; we’re simply animals in human skin, getting uppity in demanding equality and in need, as Marcus Bachmann suggested last year on a Christian radio show, of "discipline" and "action steps." (Ooooh, action steps! Why, Marcus, how dirty you talk!)
But as a wise president once said, "you cannot fool all of the people all of the time." As the prurient and absurd nature of such claims become clear to mainstream America, the tide is turning. Recent polls show a majority -- slim, but extant -- supports our right to family. Socially, our persons and our relationships are becoming more accepted. It’s the legislative arena where we are still routinely and stubbornly denied.
Nowhere is this more obviously and persistently true than DOMA, which pointedly and scornfully excises our families from legal existence on the federal level, forbidding us all but the most tenuous recognition by Uncle Sam even if we live in states that acknowledge our families and let us marry in order to publicly proclaim our commitment and access the means -- available to all heterosexual couples who tie the knot -- of helping preserve and protect them.
When the Obama Administration announced earlier this year that it would no longer defend DOMA from challenges in the federal courts, gays and lesbians won, finally, a measure of recognition as a real and genuine demographic. Not a group of rag-tag malcontents who "chose" to be gay in order to piss off the powers that be, but actual human beings with innate, unchangeable, involuntary, and deeply seated affection for members of their own gender. For the first time, our own government -- which theoretically functions to protect us as much as anyone else -- formally noted our existence.
In saying that DOMA should be abolished, the Obama Administration took things a step further. The message now is not only do we exist, but we also have a right to form families and pursue lifelong commitments. (So much for the oft-leveled charge that "promiscuous" gays are too busy pursuing hedonistic sexual hobbies to form authentic and enduring attachments. Of course, the lack of logic in such arguments is by definition lost on people who call gays "selfish" for wanting to undertake the obligations of marriage and parenthood.)
But according to MetroWeekly’s Chris Geidner, while saying DOMA makes for a good sound bite from Obama (and that can’t hurt as the economy continues to suffer and 2012 looms), in actual practice it’s not going to change much of anything in the near term. The public may have started seeing us as human beings, but the note has yet to be delivered to the politicians.
"Despite the fact that nobody really wants to talk about it, the House has voted to affirm DOMA this year in the National Defense Authorization Act," Geidner told the Village Voice. "A majority of the House has voted for DOMA this year."
A few lawmakers have started to see the light. Versions of the Respect for Marriage Act have been introduced in the Senate (by Sen. Dianne Feinstein) as well the House (by Rep. Jerrold Nadler), so it’s not as through the Stygian gloom that shrouds so much of the work, or lack of it, in the nation’s capitol is utterly unrelieved. There has been, and there will be, progress.
But for too many, progress-as-usual, with its steps forward and hops back, just isn’t good enough. While the anti-gay crowd utter empty and literally senseless arguments about gays contaminating... pardon me, "diminishing" marriage, committed same-sex couples in which one member is an American and the other a foreign national continue to suffer.
Couples like Anton Tanumihardja, a gay Indonesian, and Brian Andersen, who faced Anton’s deportation last Valentine’s Day. With only hours before his flight would have taken him away, Tanumihardja learned that he had been granted an indefinite extension to remain in the country.
Or Alex Benshimol, a Venezuelan, and his American husband (they wed in Connecticut, one of the six states where our families are legal) Doug Gentry,. The couple faced the prospect of Benshimol’s deportation until a judge granted them a two-year extension on Benshimol’s deportation earlier this month. It was a welcome result -- but it is not a solution, and it relied too much on the luck of the draw. Another judge could just as easily have separated the men at once.
Couples like Henry Velandia, also of Venezuela, and his American husband, Josh Vandiver, who lived in fear of enforced separation until they finally prevailed against deportation proceedings that would have pulled them from one another’s arms.
But for every success story, there are many that end unhappily -- or with the American member of the family pulling up roots and emigrating, a solution that is not always possible when the other partner is from an anti-gay nation.
Ending DOMA would not be a magic solution for all bi-national couples, but it might open the door to an eventual parity in terms of allowing gay and lesbian Americans to sponsor their foreign national life partners for green cards and residency, even citizenship, as heterosexuals are allowed to do.
Even when two American citizens of the same gender fall in love, they live under a legal cloud. The fact that our own federal government denies us any meaningful recognition leaves our families vulnerable to geography. It doesn’t matter where we married or where our legal residence may be; once we step foot in an anti-state (and there are plenty of them; 31 states have actually changed their constitutions in order to deny our families legal existence) our marital status, secure in a handful of states, can be diminished or even erased.
Such was the case for Janice Langbehn and Lisa Marie Pond, who had the misfortune of vacationing in Florida when Pond was struck down by a sudden health crisis. Langbehn was frantic to see her partner of nearly two decades, and their children were also kept away from their mother. The hospital refused to honor the women’s relationship, with a social worker telling Langbehn that her family was in an "anti-gay state." That was all too true, but it was not a rational, reasonable, or valid excuse. Eight hours later, Langbehn’s family was finally allowed to be with her for her last moments.
That was a happy ending compared to the countless couples that were deprived of the solace of a last look, or a parting touch. Imagine losing the love of your life and not being allowed to say goodbye because hospital staff or hostile relatives keep you apart.
No heterosexual couple is treated this way. But then, that’s my point. Heterosexuals are seen as full human beings with full citizenship and a complete suite of rights. And us? We’re not there yet. Our social progress, gratifying as it is, amounts to a friendly voice sharing an anecdote with a naked man freezing in the dark.
Then there’s the issue of money. For those who think that notions like "fairness" and "equality" are to fuzzily touchy-feely to take seriously (or take to the ballot box), how about a discussion of cold, hard cash? DOMA helps impose additional costs (taxes, mainly) on same-sex families and throws roadblocks in the way of revenue streams that would otherwise help them (federal pensions, for example). If America’s Fox News viewing public were serious about financial equity for all (and these are the people, remember, working subsistence jobs as their credit debts mount, who don’t support raising taxes on corporations and on the mega-rich), they would be the first in line to lobby for DOMA’s dismantling, and the financial burdens it places on gay families along with it.
Anti-gay proponents of DOMA and other laws that hurt our families say that such laws are needed to protect their own families, and their own religious faiths. They even have the gall to claim that there is no anti-gay animus behind their support for such a blatantly discriminatory law.
But those claims ring hollow. What group other than gays is subjected to legal discrimination based on someone else’s religious faith? White Christians used to consign blacks to a similar status, calling their skin color the "mark of Cain" and asserting a religious right to discriminate against them. Good Christians used to view pogroms against Jews as practically a devotional obligation. Such an argument -- that the assertion of religious freedom entails stripping freedoms from, and imposing malicious punishments upon, others -- would never be acceptable now if applied along racial or religious lines. Somehow, though, there’s a sizeable slice of America that still buys that kind of reasoning when it come to gays.
And how does the tender devotion of a gay couple harm the prospects of a heterosexual pair? Judge Vaughn Walker, when asked to throw out a lawsuit brought against California’s anti-gay Proposition 8, asked this very question of Charles Cooper, the lawyer representing the ballot initiative’s proponents. Cooper gave an illuminating, and honest, answer.
"I don’t know, your honor," he told Judge Walker. Cooper went on to repeat that he didn’t know how a loving same-sex couple could possibly tarnish the marriage of heterosexuals living next door, down the block, or across the country, but, he asserted, the harm happens anyway... just because, you know, it does. Cooper didn’t seem to think any evidence was needed for this extraordinary claim.
The rest of the plaintiffs’ case was about as flimsy, and Walker, quite rightly, found against them.
Walker’s verdict is under appeal and the case will probably end up before the Supreme Court. If Walker’s finding is ultimately upheld, loving couples in California whose only "crime" or "sin" lies in being of the same gender will once more be allowed to pledge themselves to one another in body, soul, and law.
But it should never have been necessary for the question to go to court. Voters should never have cast ballots on the rights of their fellow citizens in the first place. And the law should never have set us apart and consigned our families to being blotted over with legal White-Out.
Proposition 8 is wrong. DADT was wrong. All laws that penalize us, excoriate us, set us apart and block our full and equal participation in society and legal parity are wrong, for the simple reason that any discriminatory treatment -- that "We can’t give you any evidence for our hatred, which by the way isn’t hatred at all, but we just know that this group of people are either sick, evil, or possessed by evil spirits" kind of treatment that we suffer -- is wrong.
DOMA is wrong. Two courts have already found it unconstitutional. It’s not founded in an urge to "defend" marriage or family or anything else, except, perhaps, a sense of entitlement and license by anti-gay elements that refuse to see and honor the basic humanity of gays and lesbians.
You want a reason why DOMA should be repealed? There are as many reasons as there are men, women, and children in the families that DOMA hurts.
DOMA must go.