May 11, 2011
Oral history #1, featuring former HRC head Elizabeth Birch, can be found here.
By Adam Bink
The first post had Elizabeth Birch mentioning that she took up DOMA with Vice President Al Gore, but without success, as President Clinton signed the bill. Here’s Al Gore, as quoted in Making Gay History by Eric Marcus:
I thought the Defense of Marriage Act was incredibly cynical. Perhaps I’m too negative in my assessment of their true motives, but I always suspected that those who were promoting the bill saw it as a so-called wedge issue that could be used in direct-mail fund-raising, as a political weapon to use against those who wanted to defend the principle of equality.
I felt that President Clinton’s judgement about the political factors was understandable given the complete impossibility of persuading more than a small percentage of Americans at that time that the other view was correct. I don’t feel good about that, but I think that was pretty much where I was.
I’d have to say I did not make the same fight on the Defense of Marriage Act as I did on “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” I don’t think that I had the vocabulary then to articulate the kind of alternative that I now strongly support. I feel that the right outcome would be to have a legally recognized civil union by some name that differentiated it from the marriage right that is so deeply interwoven with the expectations of what marriage is all about and give it the same legal protections and the same rights and responsibilities.
I sort of saw it that way then, but it wasn’t to the point where I could really express it well, and therefore it seemd like a binary choice. I did feel that it was really a hard push for the president; both he and I come from Southern states, the Bible Belt. And there were more than a few gays and lesbians who said, “Look, we understand.” That was also a factor. A number of people had said to him, “You don’t have to take this bullet.”
In the course of writing my book [about American families and the challenges they face]… I’ve brushed on some of the some of the realities of what marriage really needs to be defended against. In the last hundred years, the divorce rate has gone from three per one hundred marriages to fifty per one hundred marriages. The number of hours worked by both people in two-parent families has skyrocketed. The same people who want to allegedly defend marriage by taking a swipe at gays and lesbians area against family leave, against raising the minimum wage, against health care for families in a way that takes some of the pressure off.
If you want to defend marriage and not just use the label in a cynical attack on the vulnerable, then you ought to be talking about another agenda altogether.