Last Wednesday morning I turned on my iMac and opened up the Supreme Court blog page. I was awaiting a life-changing decision. The ticket counter on the front page told me at that moment 195,000 other people were doing the same thing.
It was D-Day. Looking at the screen I felt light headed and anxious. Beneath that I felt scared. Not the scared you feel when you’re on a giant roller coaster, the scared you feel when you’re life is in danger.
Because the simple truth is that it actually was. The ruling that was about to be handed down would change the whole course of my life, in a myriad of significant ways, for decades. That’s the kind of danger that gets your attention.
It was a muggy June morning. I had made breakfast but found I couldn’t touch it. My friends on Facebook and Twitter were contacting me from minute to minute, sometimes second to second, many of them as anxious as I was myself.
Unable to sleep I felt hollowed out. I simply didn’t trust the court that just twenty-four hours earlier had struck down the signature civil rights era voting rights act. If they were claiming that the issue of blatant racism no longer needed to be addressed within the American voting system, what on earth would they say about gay rights?
It’s hard to convey to someone who has not personally experienced the effects of DOMA just how invasive it was, what a daily affront it offered to your life and dignity. It’s hard to explain what the prospect of its removal meant too. I was dumbstruck as I waited for word.
The minutes passed like hours. Ten o’clock arrived and the decision was handed out to the press in Washington D.C. It took a few more minutes for the news to hit the wires. But when I heard a mighty cheer go up outside the court my heart lightened.
“The Supreme Court of the United States has declared Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to be unconstitutional,” a reporter announced. “It is a violation of equal protection principles, the court has ruled.”
Like a lot of people, I was astonished to hear the court use this language. One of the legacies of DOMA is that for most of its long life on the books, there have been very few justices or politicians willing to explicitly say what DOMA so obviously is, one of the most egregiously bigoted laws ever enacted in the United States.
Allow me to call a spade a spade. I have personally lived under DOMA’s cruel shadow for seventeen years. A law this discriminatory and pointless could take a lifetime to undo, I feared. I was startled to watch it swept away within minutes of the courts daily rulings.
In the majority statement, Justice Anthony Kennedy (the 76 year old Irish American appointed to the court in 1988 by Ronald Reagan) wrote, “DOMA’s principle effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal. The principal effect is to impose inequality, not for other reasons like governmental efficiency.”
It’s enormously important to understand how and why the court ruled as it did. Discrimination and inequality are unconstitutional Kennedy wrote, so they struck it down. Their ruling now places the decision of whether same sex marriage will be recognized into the hands of the individual states, which still define marriage within their own jurisdictions.
But we will no longer have a federal law that discriminates against a subset of citizens. As a member of that discriminated-against subset, I’m grateful. Having lived under DOMA for seventeen years it’s nice to have my rights finally acknowledged at the federal level.
That court’s decision doesn’t mean that everyone in the country now supports the ruling, I realize. Conservative critics have already made their disapproval clear. Some claimed the court had overruled God. Others used very ungodly language to convey their shock and displeasure.
During the past week we have seen how hard it is for many in the religious right to come to terms with the notion that gay people are finally their equals under the law. That was the nightmare scenario they have feared the most. To prevent it they warned us that same sex marriages threaten opposite sex marriages by their very existence. If gay people can marry, heterosexuals could explode, their reasoning went.
This was always insufferable nonsense but their message permeated our cable news networks for almost twenty years. It was a claim repeated so often that many came to believe it.
But strong personal and religious beliefs are one thing, those who lament the court’s decision can’t do so on any constitutional basis. In America you are free to hold your own personal or religious beliefs, but that doesn’t mean the nation should enshrine your beliefs into law. It is not the Supreme Court’s role to arbitrate personal morality, it exists to determine whether or not the law being challenged is constitutional or not.
I realize I am talking about court rulings in an impersonal way. I do this intentionally, at least at the outset. The truth is there has never been a way to talk about the DOMA without getting personal.
That’s because DOMA barged into the private lives of gay people. It said to them we don’t approve of you, we don’t accept your equality as American citizens, and we are going to prevent you from enjoying the rights and entitlements that we enjoy ourselves. It’s for your own good.
DOMA tore gay couples apart, denied them immigration visas, denied them the ability to make medical decisions for each other, denied them health care, denied them tax breaks, denied them inheritance rights, denied them survivors benefits, most of all it denied them their dignity as people.
Crucially though, in the seventeen long years of DOMA’s existence, no one has ever been able to explain how even one heterosexual marriages was defended by tearing tens of thousands of gay relationships apart.
In my own fifteen year-long relationship with my partner I discovered that DOMA got in our way so often. It never seemed to run out of finding new ways to break our hearts. Everything cost more and delivered less. It cost us tens of thousands in legal fees to pursue the same rights that any heterosexual couple can pick up for $35 at City Hall.
We had to crisscross the Atlantic a dozen times, we had to wait to wait anxiously outside Embassy doors, we had to create and sign our own legal documents everywhere, we had to find endless imaginative new ways to confirm what the whole world could already see but the law refused to accept: we were a couple.
When the ruling was handed down on Wednesday morning I felt a door open in my imagination that has been long shut. It was the door to our future. It was no longer barred to us. For a few hours of this unexpected freedom I hardly knew what to do with myself.
Now I know what to do, though. I plan to marry. I plan to live here in the United States as an equal citizen under the law. I plan to eventually vote. I plan to avail of all the 1,047 rights and protections that are enjoyed by married heterosexual couples that were denied to gay ones. Being gay, I also plan to open a registry at Bloomindales and Barney’s. I have seventeen years of catching up to do. At last.
Raise a glass to Robert Emmet, the Irish rebel leader executed on this day in 1803