I’ve been using the Hide feature on Facebook a lot over the past year, in an attempt to insulate myself from the politics of certain members of my social network. It hardly matters the point of view: the most irksome news feed items are sloganeered images that exist mainly to congratulate the poster on his or her own rightness. The political discourse on social media sites is not an exchange of ideas so much as a bubble of self-validation. You might say that’s exacerbated by hiding people whose opinions are different, and you might be right. The thing is, there is only so much a person can take.
So, it’s ironic that, despite my judicious pruning, it was a picture on Facebook that pushed me over the proverbial edge. It wasn’t an endorsement of a candidate or ideology. Instead, it was a screenshot of a sales receipt from a website that allows users to complete their divorce documents on the internet. I guess if people are becoming wedding officiants online, it shouldn’t surprise that marriages are being ended the same way. And to the extent people can work out an equitable arrangement between themselves without involving lawyers and their fees, that seems fine. Sad, but fine.
Anyway, it wasn’t the receipt that bothered me, so much as the offer it extended: $50 off on the client’s next divorce. Its subtext was, ‘When you fail at this wedding stuff again, as you surely will, remember we take care of repeat customers’. If you’ve not heard the National Organization for Marriage or, indeed, Congressional Republicans railing against this kind of flippant and opportunistic abuse of adult relationships in their aggressive efforts to ‘defend marriage,’ that must be because they’ve been preoccupied with a bigger threat: apparently, me.
I remember a lot about the summer of 1996. I had a part-time job and a few grad school seminars, but my schedule was flexible and I became obsessed with C-Span. I’d watch Washington Journal as I ate my breakfast, and Congressional floor proceedings would be on, if only in the background, much of the rest of the time.
I could probably have chosen a better time to watch the House and Senate in action. That year featured one of the least edifying debates in American legislative history, as congressmembers fell over each other to denounce the threat of same-sex couples on matrimony and engage in what the White House called divisive ‘gay-baiting’. Yes, that was the summer of the Defense of Marriage Act, a panicked response prompted by the possibility Hawaii might allow gay people to wed. It’s hardly worth revisiting the details, but suffice it to say the bill’s author was a man on his third wife. Marriage arguably needed more defending against him than some well-meaning gays and lesbians, but who knows? Maybe the $50 discount enticed him to try, try again.
There was some progressive outcry, and a few Democrats and a lone gay Republican opposed the bill, but fearful of upsetting would-be voters, the DLC-led Clinton campaign did what it could to bury the issue well in advance of the November election. And so, in September, the President of the United States did his part to ensure that the ‘1049 federal laws classified to the United States Code in which marital status is a factor’ did not apply to citizens of the homosexual persuasion. That figure comes from the General Accounting Office, which produced a report after the passage of the legislation (no need to worry about the details beforehand, obviously) that helpfully categorised laws that referenced marital status. Among the categories were social security and related programs, housing and food stamps; veterans’ benefits; crimes and family violence; and so on.
The summer of 1996 was also the last summer before I was gay. That’s not entirely true, of course, but it wasn’t until the following year I acknowledged it to anyone beyond going to see films like Beautiful Thing at the Tallahassee Movies 8 on my own. Between an evangelical upbringing and the tenor of treatment of homosexuality in the broader society (hello, DOMA), the ramifications of such an identity weren’t entirely appealing. But eventually the truth must out; the ramifications of not embracing authenticity are ultimately less appealing.
People have always gone to big cities to recreate themselves, freed of the notions of those who’ve watched them grow up, and I was no different. Having read its books and heard its music, Britain exerted a pull to which I succumbed. At the age of 21, I enrolled in a work abroad program and moved to London to do temp work and live in a hostel with other kids on the cusp of adulthood, each of us emancipated to decide which aspects of our past selves we might wish to reinvent. Trying on a new life in a foreign land, I took the chance to be the person I always was and yet had never been, and it didn’t take long before I fell in love. That’s the sort of thing you want to share, so, from a public telephone in the hostel corridor, I faced up to my past self and told my parents.
First loves rarely last, and mine was no different. But I came back home a different person. A more honest one. You might even say a more American one.
The time since then has seen a paradigm shift in gay and lesbian visibility and acceptance. In less than a quarter century, the US has moved from the HIV/AIDS epidemic through the ‘Queer Eye’ and ‘Lesbian Chic’ eras and ended up with Ellen DeGeneres as the new Oprah. Gallup says the percentage (58) of Americans who have a gay or lesbian friend, family member or co-worker hasn’t changed since it first started asking the question in 2003, but somehow the percentage who think marriage needs the definition ratified in DOMA has. 2011 was the first year that a majority of US adults thought marital relationships between straight and gay couples should be legally equivalent. Only 27% of the population felt that way in 1996.
These changes are drastic, and yet DOMA is still with us. Perhaps not for long — there are multiple legal challenges making their way through courts across the country — but for now. There are a few states that may enact marriage equality legislation by popular vote on Tuesday, and they would be the first to do so by referendum.
From the point of view of the federal government, though, that legislation may as well not exist. That’s what Edie Windsor found when her partner of over 40 years, whom she had married in Canada, died. Never mind that their home state of New York recognised the marriage as valid, the IRS assessed an inheritance tax bill of over $360,000 on Windsor, a bill that would have been nil if her dead spouse were a man. The Republican party platform calls for a ‘full repeal of the death tax’ (that’s their catchy name for estate taxes), and yet the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, controlled by House Republicans, was there front and centre to defend DOMA against the challenge of an 83 year-old woman.
While Windsor ran into the GAO’s ‘taxation’ category, it’s the ‘immigration, naturalisation and aliens’ class of laws that’s most relevant to my life. The Immigration Policy Center sums things up this way: ‘Essentially, DOMA prevents same-sex couples from receiving the same immigration benefits that different-sex couples receive’. I’ve ended up back in the UK and have been settled quite happily in a relationship for several years. My parents regard my fellow as part of our family, but he’s got one shortcoming: he’s not American. In immigration parlance, he’s an alien, and as a same-sex couple prevented from receiving the same benefits different-sex couples receive, there is no legal way for us to live in the US together.
It’s a good thing I like Britain, because DOMA means we’re stuck. DOMA means my folks have had to resign themselves to having a son who will forever be across an ocean. DOMA means whatever children I might some day have can never be brought up in the land of my birth. DOMA means, no matter how many times I waved my flag and sang The Star Spangled Banner at the London 2012 Olympics, my country isn’t really mine.
Religious organisations may celebrate whichever weddings they choose, but there is no civic purpose served by the US federal government saying my relationship counts for nothing, that the man with whom I share a life is hardly different than a stranger. Whether by passage of the Uniting American Families or the Respect for Marriage Acts, or by the intervention of the courts, I hope that will change. But until it does, it is worth remembering who is fighting to make sure it doesn’t.
People cast their votes for all sorts of complicated reasons, but when it comes to the fair treatment of gay and lesbian people, there is no doubt where the parties and candidates stand. The Obama administration has sided with families like mine and Edie Windsor’s, while John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, keeps throwing good money after bad, defending the indefensible. Bob Barr, he of the three wives, has repudiated the law he wrote and supports its repeal, but Mitt Romney says, if elected, he will give Boehner a break and appoint an attorney general who will take up the DOMA cause. He also says he’ll push for a change to the US Constitution to define marriage as heterosexual-only, although the position on that seems to change from one day to the next. While it’s doubtful such an amendment would be ratified, Romney-nominated Supreme Court justices would be likely to take an originalist view of the Constitution, reading Edie Windsor’s equal protection, and mine, through the lens of 1788 lawmaking. Thinking back on attitudes as recent as 1996, that doesn’t fill me with much confidence.
When arriving on US soil, my partner and I go our separate ways, sorted into lines by our respective citizenships. In my queue, I produce my passport and explain I live abroad. The border protection officer scans and stamps the necessary pages and hands it back. The more communicative officers say, ‘Welcome home’. That sounds nice, but it won’t mean much till the American government stops ‘defending’ marriage and starts embracing its founding principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Election Day is a chance for each of us to speak up for these principles, to mount our own defense. Not based on exclusion, but based on equality.