Profound political change never happens overnight. The epic struggles for civil rights, voting rights, women’s suffrage and workers’ rights all took decades to achieve success and, at many levels, are still going on. But no political movement has ever sped to victory as fast as the fight for marriage equality, capped this week by the Supreme Court’s historic decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act.
It’s hard to believe, but only 10 years ago it was against the law for gays or lesbians to engage in consensual sex in 14 states. Indeed, Wednesday’s ruling on same-sex marriage came 10 years to the day after the court handed down its Lawrence v. Texas decision, invalidating anti-sodomy laws in Texas and 13 other states.
It was only nine years ago that conservative marriage activists succeeded in placing constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage on the general election ballot in 11 states — and all 11 won, with an average 70 percent support. And, of course, until September 2011 and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, gays and lesbians could not openly serve in the military.
Yet look where we are today. Anti-sodomy laws are gone. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been repealed. Twelve states and the District of Columbia legally recognize same-sex marriage. Thanks to the Supreme Court, California will soon become the 13th. The President of the United States has endorsed marriage equality. So have 51 Democratic senators and three Republicans. And the Defense of Marriage Act is no more. Wow! So far, so fast.
In a sense, the court’s ruling on California’s Proposition 8 was easy, because nobody with any real stake in the issue was defending it. As Chief Justice John Roberts noted, anti-same-sex forces, led by Catholic bishops and the Mormon Church, were not impacted in a “personal and individual way” by the outcome. Plaintiffs, on the other hand, were. Paul Katami and his partner Jeffrey Zarrillo, for example, couldn’t get married as long as Prop. 8 remained in effect. Governor Jerry Brown directed officials to start issuing same-sex marriage licenses as soon as federal courts certify the Supreme Court decision.
Wednesday’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, will have much wider impact. It’s not in the same league as Brown v. Board of Education, but it’s close. Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said very simply: Congress cannot ask the federal government to discriminate. Period. In those states which have recognized gay marriage, Kennedy argued, federal agencies cannot treat straight couples one way, and gay couples another. DOMA, he concluded, had no purpose other than to harm gay and lesbian couples and their families — in effect, telling them “that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others.”
There is no way under the Constitution to defend such outright bias. The White House refused. So did the Justice Department. Even President Bill Clinton, who signed it into law in 1996, begged the court to overturn DOMA and thanked them for doing so. In the end, only House Republicans under John Boehner stood up to defend DOMA, which says a lot about today’s Republican Party. How pathetic that they should make discrimination in any form a top priority. Is that really how they plan to appeal to young people?
The implications of the repeal of DOMA are huge. There are more than 1,000 benefits, ranging from tax advantages to retirement options to veterans programs, which only straight couples now enjoy under existing statutes and regulations. All of those benefits will now be equally available to gay couples as well, at least in all 13 states that recognize same-sex marriage. Same-sex spouses of active-duty military, for example, will now be notified if their partner’s killed in combat, allowed to apply for survivor benefits and entitled to receive the American flag covering the coffin — simple, but all so important recognition straight partners have long taken for granted.
Again, the Supreme Court fix is not perfect. Same-sex marriage is not the law of the land. Not yet. But this week’s decisions are a historic step forward. They renew our hope that, while significant social change may take years, it will eventually happen. It’s happening with both marriage equality and immigration reform. And soon, mark my words, it will be happening with climate change legislation. Republicans blocking it now will soon rush to embrace it. Just not soon enough.