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Donna Red Wing Headshot

The Era of Exclusion Is Over

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Last Friday, as my staff and I sat hunched at our desks, refreshing the SCOTUS Blog for updates from the United States Supreme Court, the gravity of this extraordinary moment in history hit me. The profound moment that we have been striving toward for decades was so close. We were finally getting our day in court. As the news came in the form of tweets and breaking news emails from our partner organizations, the weight of what was to come next hit me, and my heart began to pound.

The U.S. Supreme Court has opened the door. It will hear the constitutionality of a marriage ban in California that is near and dear to so many people, including some of my staff. It will also tackle DOMA, the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which has told so many families -- including mine -- that we are not equal in the eyes of the federal government.

So let's back up and review DOMA's long history.

The so-called Defense of Marriage Act was signed into law Sept. 21, 1996. For the past 16 years this hurtful and discriminatory piece of legislation has been a mark on our nation's soul. It is time for this shameful chapter in our nation's history to end.

U.S. Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) introduced DOMA in 1996. DOMA was born because of a movement in Hawaii toward marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples in that state. While the bill allowed states to refuse to recognize marriages of same-gender couples from other states, it also created a broad federal definition of marriage as a union limited to one man and one woman.

The impact of DOMA on hundreds of thousands of gay and lesbian couples across America has been profound. As the movement for marriage equality in states across the country has gained momentum, more and more couples are finding themselves legally married in their home state while still being excluded from the federal protections of marriage. In fact, DOMA unfairly excludes same-sex couples who are legally married from more than 1,110 federal protections and responsibilities that the government provides to other married couples, including Social Security survivors' benefits, immigration and the filing of joint tax returns.

I worked as the Human Rights Campaign's National Field Director during those exhilarating Clinton years. I remember my colleagues from HRC and other national LGBT groups discussing the bill as one we could not defeat. Even President Clinton announced that he would sign it. The deck seemed stacked against us.

But not everyone was resigned to accept DOMA. It was Ted Kennedy, known as "the lion of the Senate," who opposed the bill. ''I regard it as a thinly disguised example of intolerance," Mr. Kennedy said. "But regardless of anyone's views on same-sex marriage, this bill is a flatly unconstitutional exercise of congressional authority.'' He went on to say that DOMA was "a mean-spirited form of legislative gay-bashing...."

At that time the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), introduced as we know it now in 1994, seemed attainable and reasonable. There was even talk of amending the Defense of Marriage Act to include these crucial protections for LGBT employees and residents. The painful message emerged: No marriage, but you can keep your job!

Many of our national organizations walked into meetings with Senate staffers with the idea that if they couldn't win on DOMA, they would push for ENDA. The horse trading was reprehensible and rampant.

But there were some who actually understood the long-term implications that DOMA would have. Evan Wolfson understood what this meant, as did Lambda Legal, the ACLU and many religious leaders who had great optimism about the future of marriage equality and who had faith in the American public. We were already changing hearts and minds. With thoughts of marriage equality just down the road, Evan and others simply could not embrace DOMA, however reluctantly.

In the end, the Defense of Marriage Act passed overwhelmingly by both parties.

It is important to note those who stood with Ted Kennedy against it: Daniel Akaka, Barbara Boxer, Russ Feingold, Dianne Feinstein, Daniel Inouye, Bob Kerry, John Kerry, Carol Mosley-Braun, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Claiborne Pell, Chuck Robb, Paul Simon and Rob Wyden. These leaders, along with Evan Wolfson, were my heroes in this battle.

DOMA passed with no amendments. ENDA, unfortunately, failed to pass by one Senate vote. All that wheeling and dealing, all that currency used, and in a single day the Defense of Marriage Act passed, leaving ENDA shockingly and unexpectedly defeated. And so on Sept. 21, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed DOMA into law, forever altering the trajectory of our struggle for the freedom to marry.

So here we are. It's December 2012, and an employer can still legally discriminate against a potential employee based solely on sexual orientation or gender identity, leaving LGBT people in 34 states vulnerable to discrimination without recourse. Legally married couples in nine states are still being denied the federal protections of marriage. And, of course, gay and lesbian couples are still being denied the dignity of marriage in California.

Now that the Supreme Court has decided to take on DOMA and Proposition 8, it is clear that 2013 is going to be one hell of a year.

My partner and I have been together as a committed and loving couple for 26 years. We are growing old together. We moved to Iowa so that we could get married and have our marriage recognized by the state we live in. We are so thankful that Iowa values the freedom to marry for couples like us.

And after all of these years, we are finally planning our wedding. Our families and friends from all over the country will come to Iowa to celebrate that occasion. We know that our marriage will be respected in our home state. It is my hope that our marriage will be a simple, garden-variety marriage. However, it will not be a gay marriage or a special marriage. It will simply be a marriage and, of course, a fabulous celebration.

As a couple we work hard, and we pay our taxes. We're the kind of people you want to live next to; we're responsible, caring and respectful. We mow our lawn and rake our leaves. We engage in the democratic process. And if we bake cookies or make bread, we bring some over to the neighbors.

It would be immoral and unethical for our government to continue to discriminate against us and the hundreds of thousands of couples like us. As you can imagine, the emotions are overwhelming: anxiety, hopefulness, giddiness and fear because the Supreme Court of the United States of America has agreed to hear the challenge to these marriage cases. We are hopeful that the U.S. Supreme Court will do the right thing and strike down the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8.

It is time that this disgraceful era of inequality comes to a close. It is time for all families to be valued.