Repealing DOMA and Finding Compassion in the Quest for Civil Rights
By Charlene Strong
Senator Feinstein presented a bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday called the Respect for Marriage Act. The Committee voted 10-8 along strict party lines to consider a repeal of the Clinton-era law that defined marriage between one man and one woman. The law known as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) has stood in place since 1996 denying same-sex couples the opportunity to full marriage equality in the United States.
Senator Feinstein pointed out that this historic milestone is an important first step in reaching full equality on the marriage front. She added that if the bill failed to pass in the Senate or House, she would continue to introduce it over and over until it successfully passed to become law.
Following Thursday’s vote, Senator Feinstein told the media, “Virtually any advance in civil rights or any kind of rights has been carried by the Democratic Party. It’s just a fact.” I agree with her assessment.
The Republican response was that the measure was a waste of time. John Boehner (R-Ohio) said that the White House didn’t have the right to pick and choose which laws the administration wanted to enforce.
I have to be honest, hearing that civil rights and protections for many American families are being looked upon as a waste of time is not only disgraceful in its tone but is also outright offensive. The implications of these divisive and short-sided views by those in our political system who continually stand in the way of what many American families profess as important values is staggering and painful to hear – especially considering the fact that We the People voted them into public office. We did so to protect the rights of all the people in this country, not just the select few.
The notion that the advancement of civil rights for the LGBT community continues to be faced with such a discriminatory tone is unconscionable. The glaring lack of civil liberties imposed by non-inclusive laws is an oversight that needs to be addressed in such a moment of today’s vote. This is a matter of civil rights and my passionate stance comes from knowing all too well what it means to be looked upon as a second-class citizen in this country.
Without full equality, gay and lesbian couples are left to navigate a maze of laws that rarely have inclusive language that protects their families and lives. Currently in this country, six states allow same-sex marriage rights. The limited nature of those marriage rights end at the borders of those states and leave families vulnerable outside of the state which has afforded them those legal protections.
For the past five years I have become a tireless advocate for LGBT equality. I operate from a deep and powerful understanding of what can happen when we are faced with the knowledge of just how few legal rights and protections we have…often resulting in devastatingly tragic consequences. This understanding has taught me that state rights do not go anywhere near the 1138 rights and provisions that are afforded to heterosexual couples when they legally marry in this country. When a state grants marriage rights to same-sex couples, those rights often have very little weight throughout most of this country and reflect little but speak volumes of how far we still have to go in this fight for civil rights and family recognition for gay and lesbian couples.
The devastating stories that I hear over and over are just a smattering of the bewildering and destructive and, should go without saying, collateral damage of this ongoing philosophy of inequality. It has little to do with faith and everything to do with compassion.
As I’ve traveled from Boston to St. Louis to Indiana and Michigan and everywhere in between, I hear stories that absolutely break my heart. I spoke recently to the students at Concordia College in Moorehead, Minnesota and, after I finished speaking, a young woman approached me and was so devastated by the discrimination that continues in this country and everything she has witnessed. She was almost inconsolable. It is in those moments that I feel the profundity and real pain that so many are enduring without this equality that I’ve been speaking of. It is a sad commentary of the suffering and pain many feel today with little relief.
In Washington State we took an important leap towards equality and protections for same-sex couples with the success of the Domestic Partnership law. Governor Christine Gregoire so eloquently stated that these rights are a reflection of the values of the State of Washington. The passage was a moment of great pride and it was an honor to see her sign a bill that righted a wrong for so many families in our state.
Senator Ed Murray fought tirelessly for the passage of our domestic partnership laws and to this day continues to support legislation for equality. I reached out to him to ask for his comments about this historic vote and he had this to say:
The Respect for Marriage Act says that when you are married in a state, the United States government will respect your union. It’s about fairness, and that is all lesbian and gay couples have asked for. I commend the US Senate Judiciary Committee for advancing this important legislation. Without it, all our efforts here in Washington State to reach true marriage equality will come with a small, but devastating caveat – that your state may honor your marriage, but the American government does not.
There is something that I’ve learned when I’ve shared my story these past few years…and that is compassion. I find myself drawn to the concept of compassion and what it means to me and hope to convey that message when I speak. I know without a shadow of a doubt that with compassion and speaking from a place of compassion, others will be inspired and motivated to speak with a voice of compassion for equality for all citizens of this country.
Charlene Strong is the co-editor of The Seattle Lesbian and a civil rights activist.