May 10, 2011
By Adam Bink
As this is the 15th anniversary of the passage and signing of DOMA (President Clinton signed it into law on September 21st, 1996), there are a few reflections pieces out and about. My colleague Chris Geidner has a wonderful series about it over at Metro Weekly I encourage you all to read.
I was flipping through Eric Marcus’ Making Gay History last night, also a wonderful book, about it, and as we reflect on the anniversary and think about how to overcome today’s obstacles, I’ll be hand-typing a few excerpts here the rest of the week to spur the dialogue. The entire book is composed as a series of interviews, using excerpts of them chronologically through the history of the movement, and some of the perspectives and stories from people like Al Gore, Elizabeth Birch, Larry Kramer, Ellen DeGeneres, Kevin Jennings, Randy Shilts, and others are fascinating to read. Sometimes reading through history and the situation can help us learn and think more clearly about the obstacles that remain today.
Today’s is from Elizabeth Birch, who ran the Human Rights Campaign from 1995-2004. Birch:
To understand what happened in 1996, you have to go back to 1990 and the events that ignited this battle over gay marriage in the first place. Some brave, maverick gay couples in Hawaii tried to get marriage licenses. It was very organic, very grassroots. Eventually, Lambda Legal Defense took on the case. But what needed to have happened back in the early 1990s was a parallel, systematic process to educate people in order to create the political soil in which the public policy could grow. And that didn’t happen.
So while the case in Hawaii is moving along — we all knew that no material isssues in this case were going to be resolved until maybe ’95 or ’99 — we’re coming up to the 1996 elections. We knew that the Republicans were looking for any gay issue that could embarrass the president and drive a wedge between the Democrats and their gay base. They test as much as we do and what their polling told them was that out of the ten major issue areas, from hate crimes to families to AIDS to whatever, the only one that tested really badly was gay marriage.
The legislation got packaged up and delivered out in time for the 1996 election. And the only real strategic error they made was picking Congressman Bob Barr from Georgia as their champion; he had been married three times. So that led to the only happy moment in this battle for me. Bob Barr and I were on the Newshour on PBS. We were debating the merits of the bill and I said, “You know, there’s some confusion out there, Congressman Barr. Which marriage are you defending? Your first? Your second? Or your third?” The cameraman started laughing so hard that I thought the camera was shaking.
Dick Morris, who was President Clinton’s chief political strategist at hte time, said to the president, “You need to take this out of play and you need to announce now that you’ll sign it.” So Bill Clinton announced that if the Defense of Marriage Act reached his desk, he’d sign it. I was absolutely enraged.
I had the chance to passionately make a case to Vice President Gore that Part “A” of the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional because it violated the Constitution’s Full Faith and Credit clause, which requires that official acts and proceedings of each state be recognized by the other states. I was making a very Republican argument.
I also said that I thought that when the president was ninety years old and looked back he would be proud of having stood on the right side of history.
It didn’t happen with “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” The president could have simply issued the executive order banning discrimination in the military. He would have acted decisively and been done with it. Yes, Congress would have overturned it, but again, he would have been on the right side of history. And with the Defense of Marriage Act I thought he was secure enough in the election cycle to withstand the test of acting decisively. It would have been magnificent if he had simply vetoed it, said it was about discrimination, not about marriage.
Vice President Gore was very, very moved by what I said. He is an extremely good man and cares a great deal about our community. He said, “I will take it up with the president.” And I’m sure he did, but the president signed the bill into law in the middle of the night on September 21, 1996.
The “parallel, systemic education process” is certainly something that is not always there for us.
Tomorrow’s excerpt will include what Al Gore did to take it up with the president and what he thought about the political situation.