DOMA Decision About More Than Just Law

Yesterday’s decision by a federal judge in San Francisco, which ruled that a provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violates the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against gay and lesbian couples, was another important step toward full equality for same-sex couples. The decision was made in the case of Karen Golinski, who has been trying to obtain spousal benefits for her wife Amy since the two were married in California in 2008..

But while reading through the decision, I realized that this was more than just another court finding in support of same-sex couples having access to the equal protections guaranteed by the constitution. It was also a commentary on how that support comes about.

I was personally struck by one particular ruling cited in the decision, highlighted by Metro Weekly among other outlets:

Even though animus is clearly present in its legislative history, the Court, having examined that history, the arguments made in its support, and the effects of the law, is persuaded that something short of animus may have motivated DOMA’s passage:

Prejudice, we are beginning to understand, rises not from malice or hostile animus alone. It may result as well from insensitivity caused by simple want of careful, rational reflection or from some instinctive mechanism to guard against people who appear to be different in some respects from ourselves.

Board of Trustees of University of Alabama v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356, 374-75 (2001) (Kennedy, J., concurring).

 U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey S. White’s decision – and in fact all decisions, legal or otherwise – do not occur in a vacuum. 

Just as DOMA did sixteen years ago, this decision exists within the context of our present day culture. 

In 1996, ours was a culture in which far fewer LGBT people felt free to talk about their lives, less than a quarter of Americans supported marriage equality, and same-sex couples were still 8 years away from being able to legally marry anywhere in the country.  Media representations of LGBT people were generally relegated to scandal-ridden episodes of daytime talk shows. (Ellen DeGeneres wouldn’t come out until the next year, her sitcom character coming out shortly thereafter.)  Many states still had anti-gay laws on the books that would remain enforceable for another seven years, until Lawrence V. Texas ruled them unconstitutional. As a culture in 1996, we were a far cry from the way the LGBT community had been viewed in the decades prior, but we were just as far away from the level of inclusion and support we see today.

Now, sixteen years later, a majority of Americans do not have that same “insensitivity” cited by Judge White in his decision.  Our country’s national dialogue has included much “careful, rational reflection” about LGBT issues; from bullying, to employment and hate crime protections, to marriage. 

And as we’ve all worked to create a culture in which more people feel free to be true to themselves, more people have come out. As more people have come out and told their stories to friends, family members, neighbors and co-workers, that “instinctive mechanism to guard against people who appear to be different” Judge White referenced has vanished for most Americans, as they’ve come to realize that gay, lesbian and bisexual people who want to marry the person they love are simply not “different” from anyone else wanting to marry the person they love.

Seven straight national polls have shown that a majority of Americans support marriage equality. Elected representatives and impartial judges across this country – from the states to the federal court system – have found over and over and over again that the laws we all live by should offer the same protections to LGBT people that they offer everyone else.

More Americans than ever before personally know someone who is LGBT. And the media, though still far from perfect, is certainly doing a better job of accurately portraying the LGBT community than it was in 1996. Every story we hear, every word we read, every picture we see, every person we meet, has an impact.  It’s why we at GLAAD do what we do, and it’s why study after study has shown that people who know LGBT people are more supportive of LGBT equality. We live in a more informed world now when it comes to LGBT issues.  And it’s continuing to move in a positive direction.