If it's Sunday in Jacksonville, Fla., it isn't hard to find Darlene Maffett, her partner, and their two children -- just head over to St. Luke's Community Church. As the first gay-friendly African-American church in a city where 32 percent of all gay couples are raising children, the Maffetts call St. Luke's a second home. It's a liberating place, one where they can worship with families like themselves, instilling the Golden Rule lessons of respect, integrity, and commitment in their children.
Darlene and her partner long to demonstrate the depth of their love for each other in the most powerful way they know how -- by making a public commitment to care for and protect their family through marriage. But because government discrimination bars gay couples from legally marrying, it's hard for parents like Darlene to explain to their children why their family is not treated the same as others.
The Maffetts aren't alone. According to a recent New York Times front-page analysis of census data, the South is home to more gay parents than any other region in the nation. The study shows that the gay community is no cookie-cutter group, despite the best efforts of anti-gay opponents to paint it as such. The community is diverse economically, racially, and geographically. African Americans and Latinos, who are often rendered invisible in a national discourse that slights or ignores intersecting identities, were twice as likely as white same-sex couples to raise children. The study by The Williams Institute at UCLA also found that one in three lesbians are parents, while one in every five gay men are.
There is no question that gay families exist in every county, every state, every region in the United States. The big question now is whether we will end the ongoing state-sponsored discrimination against caring, committed couples like the Maffetts. Without marriage in Florida, one of a dozen states in the South with a discriminatory constitutional amendment on the books, these families are denied the basic tools and support they need most and are forced to live on a tenuous patchwork of protections -- or, more often, none at all.
These families are not only discriminated against by their home states, which exclude them from marriage and bar even lesser protections such as civil union and domestic partnership. They are also targeted for an additional layer of discrimination from the federal government: the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" or "DOMA."
"DOMA" harms married same-sex couples by withholding from them the more than one thousand federal responsibilities and protections of marriage accorded all other married couples -- including Social Security survivor benefits, tax fairness, access to health coverage, and recognition of family ties for immigration purposes. Equally destructive, DOMA divides married Americans into two classes, those with marriages the federal government likes, and those who are married to someone of whom the federal government disapproves. And DOMA discriminates against states, telling them that even if they end marriage discrimination, the couples they legally married will be carved into two groups.
When DOMA was stampeded into law back in 1996, no gay couples were married anywhere in the world; Congress was voting on a hypothetical. But today tens of thousands of real-life married couples are affected by DOMA's double-standard. Increasingly, Americans understand the unfairness of not only denying these couples the opportunity to make a public commitment to one another, but also depriving these families of a myriad of federal protections. DOMA serves no legitimate end: marriage is not "defined" or "defended" by who is denied it. Even former Republican Congressman Bob Barr, DOMA's original sponsor, and President Bill Clinton, who signed it into law, have acknowledged DOMA to be abusive and have each called for its repeal. Unfortunately, the Department of Justice continues to defend this law that President Obama has repeatedly said is discriminatory.
It's unfortunate because families from Massachusetts to Florida know first-hand that this type of government-sanctioned exclusion says that in the eyes of the law, gay relationships, parents and families are less worthy and deserve fewer protections and less respect. In short, it undermines the very values Darlene Maffett works tirelessly to instill in her children every day. Gay couples, like all human beings, love and want to declare love, want inclusion in the community, and the equal choices and possibilities that the government bestows on all other married couples and families. Valerie Williams, the Maffetts' pastor at St. Luke's, echoed this sentiment when describing her commitment to her partner Cindy:
We work hard to care for our friends and neighbors and we're diligent about paying our taxes. And despite our commitment to love each other 'til death does us part, our government excludes us from the protections and obligations that only marriage can provide.
The freedom to marry is important in building strong families and strong communities. Every day, the Williams' and Maffetts keep doing the hard work of marriage. Through day-to-day interactions and personal conversations with their friends, families and neighbors, they demonstrate their desire to protect their loved ones and the tangible harms inflicted by exclusion from marriage, helping others along their journey toward fairness. After meeting loving and devoted couples like Cindy and Valerie and Darlene and her partner and seeing their commitment to family, Americans can't help but ask, what business do federal, state and local governments have in putting obstacles in these family's paths as they seek to care for each other? It is time for states like Florida (and all the others that deny civil marriage to committed couples) and the federal government to end state-sponsored discrimination in marriage. In the United States, we don't have second-class citizens, and we shouldn't have second-class marriages.
Crossposted at www.freedomtomarry.org