Equality Not Befallen: DOMA’s Defeat & Human Rights

by David King on June 27, 2013

end_of_doma_1 Yesterday, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, putting an end to a ridiculous law that prevented the federal government from recognizing state-legalized same-sex marriages. Let me preface the rest of this article by saying that this is definitely a good thing, and it is a step in the right direction. Without a doubt, supporters of equality and human rights should be pleased.

Let’s take a closer look at the reality of the situation. The Defense of Marriage Act was approved by Congress in 1996, spearheaded by Georgia Republican Bob Barr in an effort to express the collective moral disapproval of homosexuality (literally). Although it was met with some resistance, it was nonetheless pushed through Congress quickly and easily, with votes of 85-14 in the Senate and 342-67 in the House of Representatives. And although it was a Republican-controlled Congress at the time, it should be noted that many Democrats indeed voted in favor of DOMA.

Five years later, the Netherlands would be the first nation to legally recognize same-sex marriage. Other countries soon followed suit, including Canada in 2005 (although the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia had already legalized same-sex marriage 2 years earlier). If I were to make the suggestion that the United States were clearly trending in a direction opposite to that of the rest of the world, one might respond by saying, “Well, five years had passed.” One might also respond by saying, “Only five years had passed!” Then again, it would not be altogether unlike the United States to go against the grain (metric system, anyone?).

The morning that DOMA was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, Facebook was ablaze with rejoice. And while many of the comments were appropriate, many were not. Many were quite disturbing, and sadly uneducated. The one that bothered me the most? “Gay, straight, today we are all equal!”

DOMA ended marriage discrimination under federal law, period. What’s scary about statements like the one above is that they suggest a serious ignorance for how much work still needs to be done, and how much progress needs to be made. They also presume to equate equality with the law, and incorrectly so. While laws play an important role in defining and defending human rights, they are by no means capable of solving the fundamental human issues that are at such odds with equality in the first place. Remember, DOMA wasn’t a product of American law (or the Constitution, for that matter). Congress simply served as a conduit for a morally driven issue. People – individuals like you and me – didn’t like the idea of gay marriage, and so DOMA was passed into law. It was an act of discrimination, supported by Congress, and upheld by the courts. What happened yesterday was not the mark of a progressive egalitarian society; it was the appropriate reversal of a discriminatory law that should have never passed in the first place. It was a moral take-back at best.

Equating human rights with laws that support them suggests a grave misunderstanding of what human rights are all about. Article 1 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Article 3 states that, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” And Article 5 states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” A 2011 study published in the American journal Pediatrics found that teens who identified as gay were 5 times more likely than their straight counterparts to attempt suicide. Violence against gays (under the label of gay-bashing, which conveniently separates it from the kind of violence that everyone else is worried about) is on the rise, according to a report released this month. And in May of 2013, a group of at least 9 men attacked LGBT rights activist Eugene Lovendusky of New York City while yelling, “faggot.” He survived, which could not be said for his fellow New Yorker Mark Carson, who was murdered for being gay in the same month. The end of DOMA will have no direct impact on such violations of human rights.

I get it, I do. Ending DOMA and supporting marriage equality are important steps. And whether or not marriage is important to you, I do believe that such legal progress helps to shift perspectives and encourage a climate of equality and acceptance. But gay marriage cannot be the pinnacle of this human rights issue, for it extends far beyond marriage, and far beyond the legal system – indeed, it originates outside of it. Today, racial discrimination is alive and well in the United States, despite the abolition of slavery and the subsequent end to segregation. Women may have secured the right to vote, but they continue to be limited and restricted in the most fundamental of human rights – in the United States and abroad. Yet ask the average American girl, and she’ll likely tell you that everything is just great – while listening to music and reading magazines that consistently objectify and disempower women. “Straight, gay, today we are all equal!” No. Regrettably, we are not.

As a Canadian, nothing has changed for me. But sadly, little has changed for most Americans. To date, only 13 states have legalized same-sex marriage, comprising approximately 30% of the American population. And DOMA was struck down by only 5 of the 9 Supreme Court justices, the remainder of whom undoubtedly continue to harbor their disapproval of marriage equality – and the discrimination and bigotry on which it is founded.

What About Bob? still tops my list of favorite flicks, but I’ve grown tired of baby steps. Don’t we know better now? Haven’t we had all the lessons we need? Thirty years into the future, when being gay is finally a non-issue (although that may be overly optimistic, in light of international challenges like Russia’s new anti-gay bill), we will undoubtedly be battling new human rights issues. But why? Isn’t it the same issue manifesting itself in different forms – in different groups of people born with the same rights and dignities of all others? I believe that what happened yesterday is a good thing. As someone who was in a long-term (same-sex) relationship, I cannot imagine being denied such fundamental legal rights as hospital visitation and security of property. But it is a drop in the bucket. We need to do better. We need to really protect one another, for starters. We need to think about rights like life and liberty and security and see them for what they truly are, in every aspect of our daily lives. And we need to ensure that the ignorant and less educated, as well as the young, do not entertain for one second the idea that complete equality has befallen the western world. To do so is to have lost this battle. To do so is to have let them win.

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