Political InQueery: Where the DOMA Ends

Yesterday, the United States Senate is holding a few hearings (such things are germane to their jobs). One of them on the Judiciary Committee, is focused on an evaluation of the damage the Defense Against Marriage Act has caused American families. While the House GOP is congratulating itself over an empty “cap, cut, and balance” bill as part of their debt ceiling negotiations, the Democrat-run Senate is thumbing it to them by talking about LGBT rights. Or, more specifically, same-sex marriage rights. Which some would argue aren’t LGBT rights at all, but old-school gay rights. What’s the difference, exactly?

First, what is DOMA? Signed by President Clinton in 1996, it was the first time the federal government defined marriage as a contract between a man and a woman. Further, it gave states the right not to recognize any same-sex marriage performed in another state, which was a big shift in the way states operate in relation to each other. When this bill was debated, it was expected that Hawaii would soon become the first state where same-sex marriage was legal, and legislators voted overwhelmingly to pass the “protection” bill. Perhaps someone should have wondered about the wisdom of letting states suspend a whole portion of the US Constitution, because the echoes from DOMA have helped exacerbate the long-standing debate about states’ rights, and modeled the way for the state-based attacks on reproductive rights, voting rights, and criminal sentencing guidelines that we see today.

In 2010, a federal judge ruled DOMA unconstitutional, and shortly thereafter, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Obama Administration would not be fighting his ruling. Taken in context with California Justice Vaughn’s ruling against the anti-same-sex Prop 8 voted on by his state’s electorate, some people say there is finally support for “gay rights.”

Let me point out that this is one issue in a sea of needs critical to LGBT people. Dan Savage can do all the crowing he wants about how this is great for the gays, but what that leaves out is the L, B, and T. Health care coverage, the right to keep one’s job free from harassment, the right to fair housing, the need for better support during gender transition, an examination of how poverty intersects with one’s sexual minority or gender status—none of these are helped by the fight for same-sex marriage. I don’t disagree that marriage is important in some ways:

  • The rights and privileges bestowed by a marriage contract can be critical for custody issues and provide a more just process of asset distribution when a marriage is being terminated.
  • Using an unfair marriage system against transgender couples who married before or after a partner transitioned would be removed as a conservative tool.
  • All taxpayers derserve all the rights available to other taxpayers.
  • Granting marriage rights to everyone who wants them is the only ethical call.

Some of the downsides include:

  • LGBT people have worked hard to create meaningful relationships without marriage, and that meaning would be watered down once they were expected to get legally married.
  • Historically marriage has also limited women’s rights, prevented women from bringing sexual assault charges against their husbands (until the 1990s), and many of the rights and privileges associated with marriage were not as well enforced for poorer couples or for people of color.

Troubling for progressive LGBT activists, is the eclipsing that has come with the all-encompassing attention on marriage rights. As exemplified in the Dan Savage “interview” with Talking Points Memo, there is a belief that interest in same-same marriage equates to political support. It only points to political support for same-sex marriage. More to the point, the hearings on DOMA are less of a bone to LGBT people, who cross the spectrum of political party, race, gender expression, and class, and more a nod to rich gay donors who can help fund Democrats’ campaigns in this election cycle.

If Democrats want to show that they’re gung ho on LGBT, and not “gay” rights, then I have a list of things I’d like them to work on to show their full and good faith:

Push health insurance companies to properly cover trans people who want hormone therapy or surgery, and stop making us pay out of pocket for necessary medical care. If I will never need a prostate exam, then cover my PAP smear.

Pass ENDA, and make it trans inclusive. It really is minimal support for LGBT folks in housing, employment, education, and public accommodations.

Create a commission to look at the most vulnerable populations within the LGBT community—youth, POC, transfolk, and our elderly—identify some measurable goals to improve their lives, and decrease the incidence of depression, suicide, poverty, dropping out of high school and college, and drug abuse, making specific recommendations across the social service agencies in the federal system.

Work on making abhorrent anti-LGBT laws in places like Virginia (which won’t allow any same-sex contracts, and Florida, which prevents same-sex adoption) unconstitutional or illegal.

Push back on uber-conservative attempts to make primary and secondary school a hostile environment for queer and trans kids. Punish principals who resist their students’ attempts to found gay-straight alliances or LGBT social groups, like you’d punish them for failing to meet teaching goals. Give schools who minimize bullying block grants to continue their good work.

Dan Savage may be happy he’s in the mainstream, but I want better lives for the rest of us.

Previously: On Deck GOP Candidates, To Gay or Not to Gay Educate

by Everett Maroon
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Everett Maroon is a memoirist, essayist, and fiction writer originally from New Jersey and now living in Walla Walla, Washington. His blog is transplantportation.com and he tweets at @EverettMaroon.

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4 Comments Have Been Posted

I don't disagree that glbtqi

I don't disagree that glbtqi activism cannot end with the push for marriage equality, and I think your list of projects for legislative Democrats is awesome. However, I would like to add one incredibly important piece to your list of the ways marriage equality is important: federally recognized marriage equality is the only way that some of us will be legally allowed to be in the same country as our partners. As things stand right now, the ability of my spouse and I to stay in the U.S. as a couple (even though we are legally married in the state where we live) is totally dependent on her ability to get a job here at all, and then on my ability to find work near her.

I am someone who has long been suspicious of the institution of marriage and the ways it can replicate existing societal imbalances of power. That said, a key piece of the oppression I experience in my daily life will be gone when DOMA is, and it would be great to have my favorite feminist magazine not trivialize that, or distance me from it, by saying that marriage equality is only relevant to the "gay" agenda, and not a part of (not the whole, but a part of) LGBTQI activism.

Absolutely, Megan, that's a

Absolutely, Megan, that's a great point. I myself am married after transition to a permanent resident alien, and we just presume nobody will ever challenge our marriage license. Again, I'm not against same-sex marriage; I'm against it sucking all of the air out of the room for other issues. Thanks for your comment!

The Canadian experience

One positive thing I think we in Canada have experienced from the legalization of same-sex marriage is a lessening of homophobia to some extent. It renders same-sex couples legitimate in law terms, and that does trickle down to individual opinion. We still have a lot of the problems you listed above, and a lot of homophobes, but public opinion in general has changed pretty drastically since it was legalized.

Well, that sure is good to

Well, that sure is good to hear! Thanks, Soren. Again, it doesn't solve all problems, but I'm all for an improvement in attitudes.

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