Speaking of Women's Rights: The 17-Year Itch

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The 17-Year Itch

by David Ward

I’ve noticed a strange pattern in the fight for LGBT rights. Whenever Congress passes a sweeping homophobic law or the Supreme Court issues a virulently anti-gay ruling, it seems to take 17 years to undo the damage.

One example: In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that states could criminalize private, consensual sexual conduct between two people of the same sex. The Court said it was “facetious at best” to think that the Constitution might protect lesbians and gay men from being arrested in their own bedrooms. It wasn’t until 17 years later in 2003 that the Court reversed itself, when it held in Lawrence v. Texas that such laws violated the Constitution.

Another example: In 1993, Congress adopted the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prevented openly gay or lesbian soldiers from serving in the U.S. military. Members of Congress made dire predictions that military readiness would be destroyed if known homosexuals were allowed to serve (and even worse, shower) alongside their straight comrades in arms. Once again, this idiotic policy stood for 17 years before Congress finally passed a bill to repeal DADT in 2010.

And now, right on schedule, it looks like we’re headed for another 17-year showdown over the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA).

President Clinton signed DOMA into law in 1996, in response to a panic in Congress that someday a state might allow same-sex couples to marry – which would undoubtedly lead to dogs marrying cats, a plague of locusts, and the like. DOMA has two provisions: Section 2, which provides that no state has to recognize marriages of same-sex couples performed in another state; and Section 3, which states that the federal government will only recognize marriages between a man and a woman.

In May, a federal appeals court in Boston held that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional. And last Friday, the House of Representatives’ “Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group” asked the Supreme Court to review this decision. If the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case – which seems virtually certain – we should see a ruling on DOMA in 2013.

Back in 1996, DOMA’s impact was largely theoretical. It wasn’t until 2004 that Massachusetts became the first state to allow lesbian and gay couples to marry. Amazingly, Massachusetts did not sink into the ocean or suffer any ill effects. Instead, the Red Sox won the World Series that year for the first time since 1918.

As more states have extended the freedom to marry to lesbian and gay couples, the impact of DOMA has become clear. DOMA doesn’t “defend” marriage. Instead, it diminishes marriage by treating legally married lesbian and gay couples as second-class citizens under federal law. At least 1,138 federal laws use marital status as a factor for specific federal protections, benefits, and responsibilities – including Social Security, the Family & Medical Leave Act, the immigration laws, and the tax code. But until Section 3 of DOMA is overturned, those federal benefits and obligations are completely denied to legally married lesbian and gay couples.

If the 17-year trend holds, we can look forward to DOMA’s demise in 2013. But while that would be tremendous news, we need to start moving the clock faster.

Here in Washington, we’re in the middle of a historic fight to Approve Referendum 74 in the November 6th election. Approving Referendum 74 would uphold the marriage equality law passed by the State Legislature earlier this year. The Legislature passed the marriage equality law just 14 years after it had limited marriage in Washington to different-sex couples in 1998.

Winning the campaign to Approve Referendum 74 isn’t going to be easy. We not only have to buck the strange 17-year timeline for undoing anti-gay polices. We also have to make history by becoming the first state in the country to approve marriage equality at the ballot box.

Do you agree we shouldn’t have to wait 17 years to win marriage equality in Washington state? Then please visit the Washington United for Marriage website to find out what you can do to help us make equality a reality this year.