Some of the 823 same-s-x couples who entered the lottery to wed in New York on Sunday chose not to wait until dawn. Niagara Falls’ famous cascades were lit up in rainbow lights as grandmothers Kitty Lambert and Cheryle Rudd said their vows in the minutes after midnight.
It was as if America was thumbing its nose back at Canada, who beat them to marriage equality six years earlier.
In the past month since lawmakers in Albany made New York the largest state in America to allow same-s-x couples to wed, admiration and jealous has come in from around the country and the world. New York City did not disappoint, spewing rainbows all over its buildings, writing gay marriage one-liners into established Broadway hits, and holding one of the biggest gay pride celebrations in the world.
So close was the victory (33-29 in the NY state senate), after so many defeats, it was a celebration well earned for those activists who had worked for many years.
The fine print, however, reveals gay Americans who can wed are still far from equal. The US Government Accountability Office’s last tally in 2004 found 1138 opposite-s-x only spousal benefits in health programs, domestic violence assistance, workers compensation, education grants, tax exemptions and joint filings, superannuation and the full plethora of military family entitlements. Middle-class welfare is still in style so that number is expected to go up.
Some of those benefits are truly life changing when denied, such as green card or citizenship sponsorship for dual-nationality couples. I met some of those couples at a rally for comprehensive immigration reform in Washington DC last year. Long-term couples who love each other deeply and clearly, but with few options: faking a heteros-xual marriage or moving to a country with a lower standard of living far from their jobs, family and friends. When they are safe from Department of Homeland Security reprisal, I hope to tell their stories.
The toughest cases are the thousands who arrived as undocumented child migrants. Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who came out as one such case last month in The New York Times, described how his uncle saw his future: “Once I married an American, he said, I would get my real papers, and everything would be fine.” Until he realised he was gay, and screwed.
But times are changing. In a case last month, the Department of Homeland Security ended deportation proceedings against Henry Velandia, a gay Venezuelan man legally married to his American same-s-x partner. A full explanation was never given. At the same time the Obama administration stopped defending the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) from constitutional challenges. That has given hope to the attorneys of same-s-x couples still facing deportation.
When Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency in 2008 he promised to be a “fierce advocate” for the LGBT community, a role only a handful in Washington had taken up before. Most agree he has lived up to that promise, even as he still faces criticism from many activists for not fully supporting marriage equality.
However, his administration has been frustrated when it came to legislative reforms, even when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. A bill to allow federal workers to add same-s-x partners to their health insurance was the first to get dumped. Opponents, such as Republican Jim Jordan of Ohio, charged that such changes would advance special rights and undermine traditional marriage. Then immigration reforms that would allow same-s-x partners to act as green card sponsors. That got mired in debate about arming guards on the Mexican border with automatic weapons. The repeal of the Defence of Marriage Act reached a full hearing in a senate committee last week but house speaker John Boehner stomped on the idea it would even come up for a vote.
Obama achieved one early symbolic win on hate crimes legislation, by attaching the anti-gay violence provision to the must-pass National Defense Authorisation Act. Representatives and senators were so unimpressed by that move, they made it clear in their speeches that such a provision would not have passed if they were given an opportunity to target it with their own amendments.
The repeal of the US military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell gay ban — which comes into effect September 20 — was a dog’s breakfast no matter how you cut it. Ignoring the advice of military forces around the world, who integrated gay personnel with immediate effect under general order, the Pentagon persuaded the White House to conduct a study of service personnel and their families. That study was to take just enough time that it would not be ready for the public until after the 2010 mid-term elections, to assuage voter backlash. It was cynical, and as history proved, almost fatal to their original hopes.
The result was nothing like what Obama or the original author of the repeal bill had hoped. To get enough votes they had to do two things: first, they took out anti-discrimination protections on par with existing provisions based on gender, race and religion; second, they recalled the now voted-out “lame duck” Democratic-controlled congress well into the Christmas/New Year period. The latter was embarrassing, but the former actually puts troops at risk.
Don’t Ask Don’t Tell allowed the military to keep its head in the sand about the prevalence of anti-gay attacks. Former Army translator Jarrod Chlapowski from gay personnel group Servicemembers United explained to me that DADT was itself a form of protection, and unless replaced with anti-discrimination policies, openly gay troops would become targets for hate attacks.
The Defense Department is still pursuing soldiers discharged under DADT for financial penalties too. Iraq war veteran Dan Choi, who made headlines by chaining himself to the White House fence over the gay ban, still owes the government in $3251.77 in veterans benefits the government says he wasn’t entitled to because he was dishonorably discharged. Lt Choi received debt collection papers last week. Those penalties will remain even after DADT is gone.
But that’s how US gay reform works. You pour millions of dollars into campaigning for your own civil rights. You aim for something meaningful and comprehensive. Instead you settle something symbolic that leaves many still vulnerable. What happened in New York was a momentous achievement and a symbol for the world, but it bears no resemblance to equality-focused gay rights moves in Australia and other advanced societies. The grandmother brides at Niagara Falls could wear white but they’ll get but a fraction of the legal protection afforded opposite-s-x marriages. Jarrod the Army linguist will be able to re-enlist, but won’t qualify for married accommodation or allowances for the seniority and financial-loss due to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
Obama has tried to cut around that paradigm by bypassing the legislature and advancing equality for same-s-x couples by ending government backing of anti-gay laws in the courts. While not unprecedented — California’s Proposition 8 went undefended by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration — it is turning heads and raising questions about the separation of powers.