Whew, New York’s had a busy week. Haven’t had a chance to catch up? Here’s what you missed…
First, in an amazing upset, the GOP-led New York Senate passed the marriage equality bill on June 24, 2011, more than doubling the population among which same-sex couples can legally marry. (New York has a population of 19,378,102 accordingly to the 2010 US Census, while Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and DC have a reported combined population of 15,671,450.) For a while it seemed like this vote wouldn’t even take place. If a revision granting religious protections to clergy refusing to perform these unions hadn’t taken place, it’s likely that the bill would have been tabled until next year, much like the delay Maryland’s legislature is currently dealing with.
Supporters believe that the passage of the marriage equality bill in New York will pave the way for others to follow suit. Over fifty percent of Americans are now showing to be in favor of same-sex marriage, so one can only hope that progress will continue all the way to the White House. Presently, Obama hasn’t come out in support of same-sex marriage. In several instances he has been reported as saying that he believes marriage to be between a man and a woman. However, now that public opinion seems to be changing, he’s been more hesitant to state his beliefs openly and some wonder if he’s going to come out in support of legalizing same-sex marriage in his campaign. Whether or not that happens, he’s done more for LGBT rights than any of his predecessors.
President Obama delivered the above speech on June 29 at the White House for an LGBT event in which he addressed his term and all that has been accomplished. For those who haven’t followed all the news, here are a few of the victories that have occurred.
With the help of Judy Shepard, he signed the Matthew Shepard act into law. This piece of legislature is named after a boy who, in 1998, was tied to a fence, beaten and left to die because he was gay. Originally, Matthew’s murderers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, tried to use the gay panic defense, which was shot down by the judge saying it was either a temporary insanity or diminished capacity defense, neither of which are allowed in Wyoming. After the trial, though they recanted their testimony saying it was just a robbery gone awry (their girlfriends denied that claim), Judge Donnel told the court and the accused that he remained convinced that Matthew’s sexual orientation played a roll in his murder. In his sole reference to Matthew being gay, the judge said the grisly crime was “part because of his lifestyle, part for a $20 robbery.” The new law expands the existing federal hate crimes law to include a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. Before this bill was signed, of the 45 states that had hate crimes laws, only 32 included sexual orientation and 11 included gender identity.
Obama also changed the way hospitals treated same-sex partners of patients. In many cases if someone wasn’t an immediate family member, they weren’t allowed to visit with the patient. While this affected a lot of people that were cared for by friends or other service providers, gays and lesbians were uniquely affected in that they were often denied visitation with a partner they had been with for decades. This was the case with Janice Langbehn. In 2007, her partner of 18 years, Lisa Pond was stricken with a fatal brain aneurysm. Although, Ms. Langbehn was her power of attorney and they had four children together, the hospital refused to let her visit. Ms. Pond died while Langbehn was still trying to argue her way in. In April 2010, President Obama called her to say that he had been moved by her case and was working to change the policy. He also apologized to her for how they’d been treated; something the hospital still refuses to do. Now under the new law every hospital that accepts Medicare or Medicaid has to grant visitation to same-sex partners.
In October 2009, Obama announced that he would lift the HIV travel ban. This ban barred HIV-positive non-citizens from entering the US for more than two decades. HIV-positive non-citizens were also banned from becoming citizens except in a very small number of exceptions. This marked a huge step forward, since this policy had been almost universally criticized from both inside and outside of the US since its instatement.
In July 2010, the Obama administration announced the first national strategy to combat HIV/AIDS: a strategy to boost awareness about the disease and redirect $25 million in funds towards states for patients on waiting lists for HIV/AIDS drugs. This plan is designed to redirect HHS (Health and Human Services) funds from dozens of different programs throughout the organization to the most at risk and affected groups: gay and bisexual men and African-Americans.
And then of course, in December 2010, in one of the most well-known and bold maneuvers of the Obama administration, the president announced that he would repeal DADT (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell). Sodomy has been grounds for discharge from the military since the Revolutionary War. As the US prepared to enter WWII, they added a psychiatric screening to the enlistment process, which automatically eliminated the LGBT community as homosexuality remained on the books as a mental disorder until 1973. In 1982, the Department of Defense issued a policy that stated that homosexuality was incompatible with military service because their presence “would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability” according to Title 10 of the United States Code. “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was a compromise to the ban that was passed in 1993 during the Clinton administration, in which they could serve as long as they didn’t admit to their homosexuality. Over 14,500 soldiers were discharged under this policy. Needless to say, DADT was flawed: soldiers were still harassed for their perceived sexual orientation and now had no way to report this to their superiors without outing themselves. This was the case with Navy Sailor, Joseph Rocha who suffered abuse for two years by his fellow servicemen. He endured constant hazing while he served with military dog handlers based in Bahrain before finally seeking discharge by coming out to his commanding officer. He has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. A Washington Post article from 2009 quotes Rocha as saying, “I told no one about what I was living through. I feared that reporting the abuse would lead to an investigation into my sexuality.” Polls conducted in the months prior to the repeal of DADT showed that approximately 77% of Americans were in favor of the repeal. However, within the military only 28% were in favor with 37% against and another 37% unsure. Since 2007, 28 retired officers tried to get DADT repealed, stating that there was evidence of over 65,000 gays serving in the military. Unfortunately, this repeal comes too late to save some officers who were harassed and even murdered due to their sexual orientation. For example, US Navy Radioman Third Class Allen R. Schindler, Jr., who was brutally beaten to death in 1992 for being gay. Or Army Infantry Soldier Barry Winchell, who was also the victim of a brutal beating in 1999. Even though Obama made the original announcement at the end of last year, we’re still waiting for it to go into effect. Studies had to be done to make sure that the repeal wouldn’t affect military readiness, which is especially important during wartime. After that, there’s a mandatory 60 day waiting period. However, Obama stated in his speech that he expects to sign the official repeal in a matter of weeks, not months, as originally suggested.
Obama’s administration is working on the repeal of DOMA (the so-called Defense of Marriage Act) as well, but until that day comes to pass, they will no longer defend it in court. This is a huge victory for the LGBT community. The Defense of Marriage Act is one of the most discriminatory laws in recent US history. It federally defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman. This means that states are not required to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, and that bi-national couples can’t sponsor their spouses for green cards. In another bold move, last week the Department of Justice released a brief in Karen Golinski’s federal court challenge, supporting her lawsuit seeking access to equal health benefits for her wife and arguing strongly that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional in terms unparalleled in previous administration statements. In the brief, the DOJ admits to the US Government’s “significant and regrettable” part in discrimination in America of gays and lesbians. Unlike in other cases where DOJ has stopped defending DOMA in accordance with President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision that Section 3 of DOMA – the federal definition of marriage – is unconstitutional, DOJ lawyers last week made an expansive case in a 31-page filing that DOMA itself is unconstitutional.
As with any controversial subject, there are two sides to the argument of marriage equality. The conservatives that are against equality mostly oppose it on religious grounds, which I will further discuss at a later date. Putting that aside, this debate is now more about legalities than religion. The fact of the matter is that same-sex couples are denied 1138 benefits that married couples currently take for granted, including pension, healthcare, adoption, and hospitalization, among so many others. A 1997 study completed by the GAO (United States General Accounting Office) originally found 1049 denied benefits. When they repeated the study in 2004, they found the number had increased to the current figure. Stopping the defense of DOMA is a big step, but the real coup will come when it’s finally repealed.
As Obama stated in his speech, these things take time. Progress is being made, and while we might be impatient for true equality, we have to take a look at how far we’ve come. More and more Americans are coming out in support of us and some of these supporters are coming from surprising places, like Mark Grisanti, a Republican Senator from Buffalo. His explanation of his vote in favor of the marriage bill was one of the most moving speeches of the evening and helped tip the bill into passage. In his speech, Grisanti noted that he was Catholic, but that he was also a lawyer and studied the legal ramifications of this bill. For him, this meant that he had a problem with the word marriage because of his upbringing, but also had a problem with the rights denied to same-sex couples and that he could find no legal reasons why they shouldn’t be allowed to marry. He said that he had never researched a subject so much as he did this one. He felt that the religious amendment to the bill provided adequate protection to clergy and benevolent organizations and if the bill didn’t pass, they wouldn’t be there next time. His most reiterated quote from the speech is, “A man can be wiser today than yesterday, but there’ll be no respect for that man if he has failed in his duty to do the work.”
Until the journey to marriage equality is complete, we’ll celebrate the victories we have along the way. New York certainly adopted that philosophy as evidenced by the turnout they had at NYC Pride last weekend. Way to go, New York! Happy Pride, you deserve it. May the rest of the country look to you for direction.
If you wish to see what else President Obama and his administration can accomplish, please consider getting involved here.
For other interest in aiding our fight for equality or to have your voice heard, please visit one of the following organizations:
National Interest: Human Rights Campaign