Sara Whitman

A Bright, Shining Light

Filed By Sara Whitman | March 03, 2009 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics, The Movement
Tags: DOMA, gay marriage, GLAD, marriage equality, same-sex marriage, Supreme Court

Today, the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) filed a suit in federal court in Boston, MA to challenge the denial of critical federal benefits to same-sex couples.

Yes. It's time for the Supreme Court.

Years ago, when GLAD was pulling together a group of plaintiffs to challenge the marriage laws in Massachusetts, many said it was not time. Many said, we are still lacking in basic rights- how can we go for marriage? It'll put us behind by decades.

Today, we are approaching the fifth anniversary of marriage equality in our state. We have recently had an unprecedented majority of House and Senate co-signers for a Transgender equality bill and look to celebrate it's passage later this year. We have secured dollars in a difficult state budget for LGBT youth, AIDS funding, and money to address issues facing LGBT seniors.

We have pushed the envelope, no question. And we will continue to.

The lawsuit addresses Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act- and only section three. It targets the rights and protections denied in Social Security, federal income tax, federal employees' and retirees' benefits, and in the issuance of passports.

Only in MA and CT, where marriage is recognized by the state. For over 200 years, the federal government has not interfered with state's rights around marriage- until DOMA.

I find in my travels, that people assume that being married in MA means married on a federal level. It does not.

This action does not effect any other state. It will not repeal DOMA or every state's right to have some ridiculous anti-equality law on their books, as many do. It does, however, put a bright, shining light on the inequalities our families face even in the state where we have so much.

Shining that light, as Mary Bonauto said, should generate support in all the states. When the country gets to know the plaintiff couples, when they meet the State Trooper, Mary Ritchie who puts her life on the line every day for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Her wife is not eligible for the full line-of-duty benefits for surviving spouses should she die in the line of duty. Or Herbert Burtis, 78 years old who lost his partner of 60 years last fall. He is denied the additional money his husband's social security would pay him if he was a recognized spouse.

After 60 years together, sharing lives, income, a home... nothing. But the married heterosexual couple in MA or CT- no questions asked.

These stories, this case, is about that bright, shining light. It is about understanding why we fight for equality every day. It's about why we need to continue the fight on all levels, in every state.

Years ago, people thought the marriage fight was wrong. Today, we have two states with marriage equality, and are fast approaching many more to have the same decency and fairness for all their citizen. Some states are still fighting to have civil rights bills.

The movement forward is never easy. As we enjoy these debates in this country, people are hung in others for the suspicion of being homosexual. Should we stop our rights to further theirs first?

Or do we all keep moving, the best we can, with the resources we have, to tell the stories that will ultimately make the difference for all.

I say, move forward.

And with Mary Bonauto in charge? We're not going to lose.

No one will lose.

(Crossposted from Suburban Lesbian Housewife


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It's funny what marriage will do to one's thinking. Before I was married, I never gave much thought to the fact that my partner and I would never be able to "inherit" each other's social security benefits. Now that we are married, I find it outrageous that this is the case.

If I am just now waking up to the unjust financial realities that we have lived with for so many years, I can't imagine the immensity of the struggle ahead to win over those who oppose this.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | March 3, 2009 10:13 PM

Sara, marriage definition changes are not wholly unprecedented in our 200 years. The foundation we should use was laid in "Loving vs Virginia in 1967." There is no substantive difference between interracial marriage inequality (and laws against same) and the right of all other Americans to live free from fear. True, this is groundbreaking in another way, but no more so than that decision. This method will take years but it is time and money well spent. Speaking of, how can we donate to the legal action team?

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | March 3, 2009 10:48 PM

This is being described as a 'rogue' lawsuit by some blog commentators because it wasn't initiated by some of the larger legal groups.

Irrespective of that, I wish the plaintiffs all the luck in the world. Their fight is our fight.

I just hope it doesn't get appealed to the Supreme Court. I have the feeling we'd get flushed.

Good luck with it and any support or help that you need, you've only to ask....

To call GLAD "rogue" is absurd. They've been the prime mover for legal change in New England for 25 years. Our laws are more gay-friendly than those of the rest of the US not just because of the people who live here, but because of GLAD. You can donate to them at www.glad.org (and no, I don't have any connection to them other than being a longtime supporter).

The timing of this lawsuit is brilliant. It forces the Obama administration in the short term to decide how to defend a law they have said should be repealed, therefore putting some nice pressure on both the Administration and the Dems in Congress to move toward repeal. In the long term, it forces Obama to think carefully about his Supreme Court picks (since this case, if it's not mooted by a repeal, won't go up for 3-4 years).

Finally, it presents squarely the Equal Protection arguments that expand well beyond marriage -- is discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation unconstitutional? Right now, I count 5 votes on the Court in our favor.

Ironically, the marriage battle that so many in the gay community have derided as peripheral to our core struggle for equality might end up being the direct route to that equality nationwide.

What we have done here makes me glad to be in Mass myself. And we have and will continue to lead the battle. From Lexington and Concord and well into the future Mass leads the way toward rights and freedoms.

Marie Longo | March 4, 2009 10:00 AM

The DOMA challenge is monumental, historic and expensive, and GLAD would welcome your generous support. Please visit www.glad.org/doma for more info on the case, and to make a gift. Thank you!

This is fundamentally where we disagree, Sara. I touched on it in my post and we were unable to continue our original conversation on this yesterday.

When you say something like:

Years ago, when GLAD was pulling together a group of plaintiffs to challenge the marriage laws in Massachusetts, many said it was not time. Many said, we are still lacking in basic rights- how can we go for marriage? It'll put us behind by decades.

Today, we are approaching the fifth anniversary of marriage equality in our state. We have recently had an unprecedented majority of House and Senate co-signers for a Transgender equality bill and look to celebrate it's passage later this year. We have secured dollars in a difficult state budget for LGBT youth, AIDS funding, and money to address issues facing LGBT seniors.

It seems flippant to me. Why? Because you seem to be brushing off those who said, "It'll put us behind by decades." It has. I'm one of those who's rights have been put behind - for a decade now.

Things were going swimmingly in Indiana. We had Democrats who were gay friendly. We had an executive order banning LGBT discrimination in state government. We were ready to pass non-discrimination laws for housing, employment, the works. And then marriage came along - Hawaii's court case became all the rage and support for LGBT rights dried up quickly in Indiana.

And we've done nothing since but beat back proposed marriage amendments.

While I celebrate your marriage with you - and believe that marriage is part of our shared struggle - I don't seem get the feeling that my basic civil rights is party of your struggle or those who continuously push for marriage. You can't celebrate my marriage with me; there isn't one. You can't even celebrate my right to keep a job since I don't have that right either.

No one in Hawaii or Massachusetts checked with other states to see how it would affect them. While you've made great strides in Mass, it's been at our cost. It's, literally, been our tears, our blood, our lives, and our security and mental health that got traded for your marriage license.

And now to see DOMA challenged - especially just for one small portion so those who already have marriage can get more dollars from the government - when it means that I'm going to catch more of the shit that rolls downhill, it infuriates me. When will the coastal folks even remember we exist?

When will anyone remember that Matthew Sheppard made for a great rallying cry, but the folks who actually live in Wyoming still don't have hate crimes protections? The whole world reported the crime and yet another Matthew could happen today and --still-- it wouldn't be a hate crime. Who remembers in today's rush for marriage for some coastal states?

Who remembers that almost ten years ago I staged one of the first online grassroots direct actions - over getting fired from a convenience store for being gay? It made it into LGBT newspapers and magazines across the country. But it could happen again today and be perfectly legal in Indiana.

Who remembers or cares that I lost my apartment in Evansville after starting an ACT UP chapter and the landlord said I'd "bring all those diseased faggots" to the house and kicked me out even though the rent was paid? Who remembers or cares that my first night homeless I got gang raped at the homeless shelter with three men forcing me into a closet and shoving my head into a full dirty mop bucket so that my choice was drown or take it? Who else but me cares about the mop handle they beat me with and shoved up my ass and paraded around the shelter like a winner's trophy?

F--king no one but those of us who still deal with those issues on a daily basis while the marriage train keeps right on rolling.

So maybe you can see why it really angers me to see "It'll set us back" as if it hasn't. It has. You just didn't pay the price for it. You moved forward.

Woah. Bil. That's an absolutely horrific story. I'm so sorry you've faced so much backlash. No one deserves that, but you especially.

I'm also sorry that it feels like other states are moving forward on the back of Indiana (and other states like it). But I really believe that our victories in other states are going to move us all forward...eventually. Whether it's civil rights or reproductive freedom or women's rights, the history of equality struggles in this country have been that it starts in one state, spreads to more, causes a backlash in "reactionary" areas, but eventually becomes so widely adopted that Congress or the Supreme Court makes it the law of the WHOLE land.

I think that's where we are with ENDA. I mean, the North Dakota Senate just passed an non-discrimination bill. North Dakota! And when we pass federal ENDA it will be because Wisconsin went first, back in 1982.

Eventually, we'll all owe our ability to marry to Massachusetts. In the meantime, it sucks a whole lot in a whole lot of places. I was going to say "I wish there was something I could do..." but I guess I should ask instead:

What can folks in the progressive states do to make things suck less for those in the reactionary ones? I mean, no one is going to stop fighting for more rights where we are, but certainly there must be things we can add to that to help move us all forward. Aren't there?

Woah. Bil. That's an absolutely horrific story. I'm so sorry you've faced so much backlash. No one deserves that, but you especially.

I'm also sorry that it feels like other states are moving forward on the back of Indiana (and other states like it). But I really believe that our victories in other states are going to move us all forward...eventually. Whether it's civil rights or reproductive freedom or women's rights, the history of equality struggles in this country have been that it starts in one state, spreads to more, causes a backlash in "reactionary" areas, but eventually becomes so widely adopted that Congress or the Supreme Court makes it the law of the WHOLE land.

I think that's where we are with ENDA. I mean, the North Dakota Senate just passed an non-discrimination bill. North Dakota! And when we pass federal ENDA it will be because Wisconsin went first, back in 1982.

Eventually, we'll all owe our ability to marry to Massachusetts. In the meantime, it sucks a whole lot in a whole lot of places. I was going to say "I wish there was something I could do..." but I guess I should ask instead:

What can folks in the progressive states do to make things suck less for those in the reactionary ones? I mean, no one is going to stop fighting for more rights where we are, but certainly there must be things we can add to that to help move us all forward. Aren't there?

Who has been calling this a "rogue lawsuit?" That sounds like someone wanting to create drama and contention where there is none. Believe me, I know...

IMNSHO, this lawsuit is both bold and brilliant. In only challenging the part of DOMA that bans recognition on the federal level, and leaving the interstate recognition alone, it's considering and planning for all the political realities that a win would entail and not going for something we'd have no chance of keeping.

Challenging interstate recognition and winning, right now, would be a disaster. If Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona and Alaska (and that's just the "A"s) suddenly had to recognize MA and CT same-sex marriages, we'd have a federal marriage amendment lickety split. But I just can't see the political will emerging to pass a Constitutional amendment banning couples in MA and CT from getting federal recognition - when, as you say, most folks think they have it already.

I just think this strategy is the bees knees and kudos to GLAD for going for it.

so then, since people are hung in different countries for being suspected as gay, we shouldn't do anything in the states until we fix that?

GLAD is not a rouge organization that decided blindly to go forward. National and state organizations were consulted- for years.

I'm not saying your struggle isn't important- but if we simply stop moving forward for fear of what the fundies will do? the fundies win.

Nothing gets lost or stops because of the challenge to DOMA. That's where we disagree, Bil, on a fundamental level. It will shine a light on all the discrimination. It is a piece in the puzzle.

Marriage equality is not the end all and be all, as I've written so many times. but it is a way to reach out to people. and it's been incredibly effective.

While I do think that we should hold a much brighter light up to foreign LGBT rights, the differential to me is that we're in your own country. We're one of yours supposedly. We're "countrymen" who have different rights than you do. The LGBT community loves the rallying cry of second-class citizens, but if you're second class what does that make me? 3rd? The argument is that we don't have the same rights straight folks enjoy, but - for the most part - you do now. I don't have ANY of it.

And is it really that much to ask that the national groups and strong activists pause helping folks in Mass who already have 99.9% of their rights long enough to extend a helping hand to their fellow citizens?

In no way am I asking you to "stop moving forward for fear of what the fundies will do." I'm asking that someone stop and think what will happen to us - by fundies and the average citizen. I'm asking you to help us move forward - there's room for all of us to have full equality; it's not a race to see who get the most the fastest.

You're right, our fundamental disagreement is on what the DOMA challenge will do. You say it'll "shine a light on discrimination." I say it only affects two states and it's damn hard to put "It only affects Section 3 of DOMA which prohibits the federal government from recognizing married couples in Connecticut and Massachusetts from receiving tax breaks and social security benefits" into a soundbite. Instead, it'll get spun here with the much simpler, "Gays are attacking DOMA (and, hence, marriage) federally."

It already is. I got calls from legislative staff yesterday. Why? The Rs are trying to rev up the old amendment again. It's already started for us. Hate crimes and employment non-discrimination have been put on hold.

We've been "stopped" once again.

The national groups are focused on many issues- not just marriage and certainly not MA. Trust me, I'm fundraising for both MA Equality and GLAD and it's not coming from national groups.

The decision to move on this came after years of discussion with national and state groups- how many times do I have to say that?

If you cannot acknowledge the tremendous steps forward the community as a whole has taken with the marriage equality movement, you're blind. It is the average citizens that respond to this argument. they understand it.

This doesn't stop your work. Nor does it mean no one cares about Indiana. We're all in this together.

The decision to move on this came after years of discussion with national and state groups- how many times do I have to say that?

Not us. Not us. And I couldn't see the response to whether or not national groups were consulted. *shrugs*

If you cannot acknowledge the tremendous steps forward the community as a whole has taken with the marriage equality movement, you're blind. It is the average citizens that respond to this argument. they understand it.

I must be blind, because I don't see that the average citizen "responds" to it. Those same citizens gave us all the marriage amendments. They obviously don't. Prop 8 wouldn't have passed if they got it.

And marriage hasn't moved the ball forward on other issues - or I'd have basic rights. Mass would have gender identity protections. DOMA would have already been overturned and ENDA would be the law of the land. None of those happened. Instead, most states got anti-gay laws (even above marriage amendments).

Thanks for the encouraging post, Sara!

It reminds me of the new Annie Lennox song:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XoOaBsB30lU

I have reservations as well about this suit. It's nice to say that Bonauto will win it no matter what, but that isn't a sure thing, and, if GLAD wins at the trial level, it will definitely go to the Supreme Court. That court is one vote away from overturning Roe or Lawrence, so I wouldn't give this case much of a chance with those folks.

I also don't think that most people will listen to the "only section 3 of DOMA" argument either. That's much too refined for most folks who'll be hearing "Gays sue to overturn DOMA!" And we'll be left responding, with our much less powerful noise machine, "No! It's just section 3! Like Hillary! Hillary!!!"

Call me a pessimist, but I think there's as much a chance to this winning as there was to the SO only ENDA getting passed two years ago. Although I hope I'm wrong.

Scott Davenport | March 5, 2009 10:12 AM

I too am very supportive of the GLAD lawsuit. I agree with many of the things written in the positive -- it's good timing and it's something whose time has come.

More importantly, I believe this is a good Supreme Court for this issue. After all challenging Section 3 is really about making a case that determine who can marry has always been up to the states. That's a conservative interpretation of the constitution that should resonate with the current justices. It's nice being able to turn the court's own arguments on itself.