The Long, Slow Death of Dumb DOMA

A friend in college hipped me to the Syracuse Cultural Workers’ Carry It On Peace Calendar.  I’ve purchased them ever since.  It features photos, art, and notable anniversaries from social movements both contemporary and historical. For June, they always do a nice spread for Gay Pride month.

This year they are featuring the story of Marvin Burrows and Bill Swenor.  They met in the 1950s when they were just teenagers in Flint, Michigan.  They moved to San Francisco in 1966 and became registered domestic partners in 1999.  They also married in February 2004, when then-Mayor Gavin Newsome opened the doors of San Francisco City Hall for same sex couples to marry.  Sadly, Bill did not live long enough for them to marry again in 2008 during the five-month window when it was legal for same-sex couples in California to do so.  Bill died suddenly in 2005.  They had been together for 51 years.

When Bill died, Marvin says that his “life was turned upside down.”  His grief was compounded by state-sponsored bigotry, which he described in a speech before the California Assembly Appropriations Committee.  At the time the committee was considering a  bill by then-Assemblyman Mark Leno to bring marriage equality to California.

I encountered obstacles at every turn. On the day he died I was told that even though I was his domestic partner, I did not have the right to make burial arrangements for him.  I was denied access to Bill’s retirement plan, social security benefits and my health benefits ended because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Without access to those benefits, I was forced to move from the home we shared for over 30 years. We tried to do the best we could to protect each other, but it was not expected that Bill would die first.

Marvin also commented that if Bill had married five different women over the course of his life, each would be entitled to receive social security benefits.  Serial marryers Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh please take note.

Mark Leno’s bill ultimately was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger.  In the mean time, marriage equality came, courtesy of the California Supreme Court, and went, courtesy of the passage of Proposition 8.  Prop 8 is now on the ropes, thanks to the landmark decision by District Court Judge Vaughn Walker, which was upheld last February by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  We’re still waiting to see if that decision will go before an en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit, or if it will go straight to the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile in Massachusetts, the dreaded Defense of Marriage Act, aka Dumb DOMA, is also on the ropes.  DOMA, of course, established that the federal government would neither recognize the marriages of same-sex couples nor would it force states to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states if the state did not wish to do so.  In 2010, a district court judge in Massachusetts ruled against DOMA.  At first, the Obama Administration fought to protect it, then did an about face and refused.  By 2011, the Republicans had taken over the House and Speaker John Boehner vowed to protect the sanctity of marriage and defend the 1996 law on appeal.  Well, the appeal verdict came in last Thursday:  the First Circuit in Boston upheld the district court ruling against DOMA.  They stayed their decision in the face of a likely appeal to the US Supreme Court, but the ruling is yet another nail in DOMA’s long overdue coffin.

DOMA was one of the singularly dumbest things President Clinton signed into law.  It was born from fear, as is all bigotry, after the Hawaiian Supreme Court ruled that it was against that state’s constitution to discriminate against same-sex couples wanting to marry.  Hawaii ultimately forestalled gay wedding bells with a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality.  However, fearful that the scourge of happy gay folks marrying would spread from sea to shining sea, Congress passed DOMA.  Fearing his reelection chances, President Clinton signed it.  He has since repudiated it, but that’s too little, too late.

DOMA is the reason that Marvin Burrows could not receive any of his late husband’s benefits upon his death.  Cynical bigots have used this type of tragedy to justify the ban, saying that it would cost too much to allow same-sex married folks to collect social security upon the death of a spouse.  To this I say:  what cost, equality?  Are we really so hard up for money that we can’t allow gay and lesbian couples the same rights that heterosexual couples have enjoyed since time immemorial?  Besides, social security is money that everyone pays into and queer folks pay into social security just like everyone else.  I should therefore be able to say what happens to the money that I worked for after I’m gone.  It bothers me to no end that my partner of 18 years is not entitled to it.  No, the fiduciary argument doesn’t wash.  It’s just window-dressed bigotry.

I know I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating.  All marriages in the eyes of the state are civil marriages.  The United States is not a theocracy.  Religious dogma, from any faith, should not hold sway over this issue.  Similarly, I would not condone any law that forces any religious institution to bless, ordain, or perform same-sex unions if they do not want to.  I’m happy to see more agreeing to do so – the US branch of American Judaism just agreed that it’s OK to bless same-sex marriages – but this is an issue for the various faiths to sort out on their own.  By the same token, while they are sorting it out, they do not have the right to force their dogma into the statutes of a secular nation.

I have friends affected by DOMA in a different way.  One is a national from overseas, a place that does not recognize same-sex couples’ rights, the other is a US citizen.  They met while the former was studying in the US.  They fell in love.  But they could not get married, and even if they could, their marriage would not save them from being separated.  Thanks to dumb DOMA, immigration rights that heterosexual spouses enjoy are not allowed for same-sex spouses.  Their work-around was to marry in a country that permits same-sex marriages and has immigration rights for same-sex couples and to move there.  That’s one solution, to be sure, but work-arounds are for software problems, not people.  Unfortunately, thousands of same-sex couples are in the same situation as my friends.  It’s an outrage and a blemish on this country.

DOMA will die.  When it does, there will be much hemming and hawing, but as with the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the kerfuffle will pass and normality will set in.  Then folks will wonder what the kerfuffle had been about in the first place.  Sadly, before DOMA dies, folks like my friends will not be able to bring their same-sex spouses to this country.  And folks like Marvin Burrows will have to continue fighting for their rights while they are in grief over the loss of a longtime spouse.  No amount of planning, wills, or living trusts and no amount of rights granted by enlightened states like Massachusetts will overcome the barriers set in place at the federal level.  That’s a federal crime.

© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.


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