No one said progress occurred overnight. But in the past two years, there has been a noticeable acceleration of it. Adding another notch to the stream of recent victories for LGBT rights, the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston struck down a key provision of the notorious Defense of Marriage Act on May 31.
Known as DOMA, the law defines marriage at the federal level as a union between a man and a woman. Thus, couples in states that recognize same-sex marriage cannot receive federal benefits, including tax, health and pension benefits. The court rightly ruled this part of the law unconstitutional. The decision leaves in place the federal government’s interpretation of marriage, but would grant the residents of states that recognize same-sex marriage access to these marital perks.
The court’s ruling is a huge step towards marriage equality. Yes, its immediate effects are limited: the decision would only apply to the two states within the First Court that have legalized same-sex marriage—New Hampshire and Massachusetts. It also has limited enforcement. Same-sex couples will not immediately see financial benefits, which is unlikely until the high court rules on the matter.
However, the ruling is not only monumentally symbolic, but it’s the catalyst in a chain of events that can only end in total marriage equality. Just as in other equality movements—woman’s suffrage and civil rights are two that come to mind—symbolic steps lead to real change.
Many gay activists get frustrated with victories like this that have no immediate gratification. But we must remember that cultural change is a marathon, not a sprint. There are two general ideas on how marriage equality will come about—using the federal system, going state-by-state; or directly from above by way of Congress or the Supreme Court.
Unfortunately, there is little chance the federal government will pass same-sex marriage any time soon. The rise of super PACs and the funneling of corporate money into political races will ensure a sizeable Republican faction in Congress. And with the high court dominated by a 5-4 conservative majority, that avenue is probably closed as well.
The other option hardly sounds better. While many liberal states on the West Coast, Northeast and Midwest have granted marriage equality, there are some states that will simply never allow gay marriage. So how do we reach that final point—equality for all U.S. citizens?
The answer is, of course, compromise: Allow the state-by-state process to influence public opinion until a mandate from the federal level is popular enough and seen as the only option in forcing backwards states to grant equality. The judges of the First Circuit made clear their preference for using the federal system. In Judge Michael Boudin’s ruling:
“One virtue of federalism is that it permits this diversity of governance based on local choice, but this applies as well to the states that have chosen to legislate same-sex marriage.”
This point reveals the painful hypocrisy of the GOP. While they rail against federal mandates for health insurance, every 2012 Republican presidential contender backed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. It’s obvious conservative politicians only stand behind the idea of states rights when it befits their beliefs.
Progress is slow and painful, yes; but we must not become hypocrites ourselves. Gays have to take the higher ground in order to come out on top. If we cite a court’s decision that is based off of federalism, then stand behind federalism. Gays can take that movement and run with it.
As much as I personally support a federal mandate legalizing gay marriage, one must recognize the reality of the situation. Forcing our beliefs on the entire nation—even if we truly are right—would only create bigger resistance to the movement and embolden anti-gay extremists. As more states pass same-sex marriage laws—Washington’s takes effect June 7 and Maryland’s next year—it will become mainstream. Opinion only snowballs from there until the states that ban same-sex marriage look like Alabama in the 1960s. What better PR campaign could gays ask for?
Same-sex marriage at the state-level is a great start; but with DOMA in place, even married gays who never leave New York were still not fully equal. Now these states can give the benefits that marriage entails to all citizens. We should let the process take its course, and give it a push whenever we can. At least we can sleep at night knowing we’re on the right side of history.