Enacted in 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) has long been a titan-sized barrier to accomplishing same-sex marriage equality. As such, repealing the law has become a major priority for those in the fight. While often treated as the ultimate goal, repealing DOMA might not be the end of the battle. Last week, the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy examined that idea with the panel, "DOMA and Beyond: Strategies for Achieving Marriage Equality."
Hosted by U of M LGBTQ resource and support organization Out in Public, the panel was a part of GRFSPP's student/alumni connection program Fordies under Forty. This program supports student organizations in bringing exemplary alumni back to campus to share their experiences.
DOMA and Beyond explored the complex legal and social issues surrounding DOMA and the fight for marriage equality. Panelists included U of M Law School Visiting Assistant Professor Steve Sanders, Wayne State University Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy John Corvino and Family Equality Council Senior Legislative Council Denise Brogan-Kator. The panel's requisite "Fordie" under forty was 2008 U of M Masters in Public Policy Naomi Goldberg.
Each of the four panelists brought a different perspective on the topic. For Out In Public, it was imperative for DOMA and Beyond to take a wider look at the issue of same-sex marriage equality.
"I think it's important that you have people from different disciplines talking and in a dialog," Jeff Kessner, chair of Out In Public said. "In other things I've been involved in, people get so siloed into whatever their particular area of expertise may be and it's very easy to say that 'this' is sort of the silver bullet that the legal approach will accomplish marriage equality."
"Even in the unlikely event that the Supreme Court were to declare that every U.S. citizen had an equal right to marry, there would still be work to be done," said Corvino who stressed that legally equal doesn't necessarily mean socially equal. "It's another thing for your parents to show up at your wedding and be happy for you." Covino, a native New Yorker and co-author with Maggie Gallagher of Debating Same-Sex Marriage, also said that he appreciates living in the Midwest because of the reality check he gets from grounded people in Detroit. "I was talking to a book publisher about my new book and he said, 'Same-sex marriage - what's left to argue?' OK - I guess if you live in New York you might feel that way, but it's a big country out there."
Much of the confusion surrounding DOMA is a general lack of understanding of the law. In simple terms DOMA does three things: Defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman, prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages and makes it so that states are not required to recognize same-sex marriages.
Goldberg, who leads the LGBT research analysis at the Movement Advancement Project, understands the negative impact that DOMA has had on families.
"The difficult thing about DOMA is that you have state governments that have chosen to extend the freedom to marry to the couples in their own state," she said. "Within the confines of that state these families are recognized, but the minute that they leave the state, no other state is required to recognize those relationships. So, you can literally cross a border and go from being married to being treated as an unmarried couple."
That confusing lack of consistent governance can become troublesome for LGBT families and this topic was a large chunk of the afternoon's discussion.
As its title suggests, the panel also covered what would happen if DOMA was repealed and what would come afterward. Goldberg acknowledged the possible reality that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling may not result in sweeping legislation reform as hoped.
"There's so many states where gay and lesbian couples can't get married," she said. "There's still going to be states - like here in Michigan - where gay and lesbian couples can't enter a civil unions because of constitutional amendments and statutes. I think the work is going to move to those places."
"Then I think we have to think beyond marriage, which is employment protection. Even if you can't get married you can still be fired for having a photo of your partner on your desk or showing up to work and being transgender."
In lauding the work in the states that recently won elections in favor of same-sex marriage, Brogan-Kator said that marriage equality came after securing other rights first. "Every state that has marriage equality, including the three states that just passed marriage equality last month, had employment protections first," she said. "Organizers [in Maine and Maryland] laid out long-form campaign strategies that included getting employment protections first because that's the easier lift."
On Dec. 7, just three days after the panel - it was announced that the Supreme Court would examine DOMA (Windsor v. United States) and California's Proposition 8 in March 2013. They are expected to reach a verdict in June. This prevents the instant reversal of Prop. 8, but could also open the door for complete legalization.