When I was ten years old, and Bill Clinton was president, the Republican-controlled Congress passed a law known as the Defense of Marriage Act. The law was passed as a reaction to Hawaii’s assertion at the time that nothing prevented them from marrying gay couples and making same-sex marriage into legal contractual affairs identical to straight marriages. It was viewed as a “compromise” by Clinton, who now says that he signed the law to prevent even harsher laws from being passed that would have been even worse for gay couples.
In any case, it has been seventeen years since the Defense of Marriage Act went into effect. All the while, gay marriage has been legalized in twelve states and the District of Columbia, creating two classes of married couples. Straight couples enjoyed federal tax benefits, Social Security retirement funds, and a wide range of other perks after their marriages. For gay couples in certain states, though, their state-sanctioned marriage was met with a blind eye at the federal level. Gay couples for years have paid more in taxes, been unable to collect their partner’s Social Security benefits, or even visit each other in hospitals.
That has all begun to change, though, especially with the Supreme Court’s ruling today that section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. In its ruling, the court noted that the law was harmful to children and families, unenforceable based on the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, and a gross and egregious power-grab by the mid-90s legislators who authored it. After that ruling, the court took the actions necessary in a separate case to restore marriage equality to California.
The result is not a sweeping, nationwide right to marriage for same-sex couples, but it is still profound. As of today, gay couples have federal legal protections that are absolutely essential for the financial benefit of the couple and the legal protection of the family unit. As of today, the pressure will be on to legalize same-sex marriage in the remaining states where that has not already happened.
The movement for gay equality, the great civil rights movement of the last two generations, advanced in a major way today. And it was all led by Temple University alumna Edith Windsor, a woman whose courage is incalculable and whose fight against this bigoted law was northing short of inspirational. The future is bright for those of us who wish for an equal future. And it just feels so good to win. Finally.