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Life, Liberty, and Ending Inequality

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Four years ago, Seattle designer Charlene Strong lost her wife of 10 years, Kate Fleming. A world-renowned narrator of audio books, Kate drowned in her basement recording studio in their home during a tragic flash flood.

Two injustices compounded the loss: that a spouse would be barred from seeing her beloved as she lay dying, and that a funeral director would deliberately ignore instructions from a deceased person's life partner, whom he nonetheless looked to for full payment.

Fourteen years ago, amid of a tide of antigay sentiment, Republicans in Congress drove through a bill, backed by many Democrats and signed by then-President Clinton. It denied recognition of federal law to same-sex couples. It also invited states to disqualify such marriages conducted elsewhere. In defiance of a Supreme Court ruling that very year saying gay people should not be made strangers to the law, it had precisely this effect.

These two events had fresh sting last week as Strong and I joined in visiting civil-rights allies and Obama Administration officials in Washington. To his great credit, the President himself spoke of the injustices surrounding Kate's passing while commemorating lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Pride month at the White House.

He gave force to his compassion and common sense. His secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, announced new guidelines to remove impediments facing same-sex couples and other Americans in hospital visitation. His secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, announced extension of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, also signed by President Clinton, to include same-sex parents and others caring for their children or sick family members.

But a major barrier looms to basic fairness and even rudimentary efforts to honor the bonds of mutual support that thousands of same-sex partners have sworn to each other and their families. It is that relic from 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA.

The law is an insult to gay people's presence and contributions in our communities, to straight people's sense of equity and solidarity, and to the principles of freedom that we celebrate each Independence Day.

It puts added stress on families at the worst possible times in their lives, often in trauma situations. And it gives validation to the worst prejudices of those who would deny LGBT people the dignity and humanity that our lives and partnerships deserve, in public functions as well as in private.

DOMA was not the direct source of the injustices in the last hours of Kate's life and in the wake of her death. Neither authorities at the hospital nor the funeral director invoked the law directly. They didn't need to.

A doctor who treated Kate the night she drowned deserves credit for naming the problem. In the documentary film "for my wife...," which tells Strong's story, she says that unequal treatment of same-sex partners in the provision of vital services, including health care, is still so common as to be almost taken for granted. She concludes that forcing same-sex partners to withstand extra scrutiny, gain permission from official next of kin who may be distant or hostile, or maintain and have ready at all times paperwork that specifies their relationship, sometimes in the midst of calamities that have stripped them of homes and belongings, all while heterosexual spouses don't face such questions, is the essence of discrimination. She's right.

But a federal remedy for such discrimination, in all of its hurtful absurdity, means challenging the far-reaching effects of DOMA. Until this embodiment of bias falls, workarounds like the hospital visitation and leave-allowance standards will be laudable but inadequate fixes in public policy.

Five states and the District of Columbia have made marriage equality the law within their borders. And more states may follow suit, as did Washington state, which passed comprehensive domestic partnership legislation over a three-year period and defended it in a statewide vote last November. That law and its vindication at the ballot box are truly tremendous wins.

Yet no matter how hard-fought or strong the protections of these important state laws, DOMA puts a hex on their force beyond state borders. Victories at the local level will continue. But as long as DOMA stands, antigay activists and religious extremists have a weapon to reject and sunder the recognition of committed same-sex unions.

Polls show approval of equal access to civil marriage for same-sex couples edging up about 15 points in the past five years. Americans overall now split about evenly on the issue. Youth register strong majority support, so the prospects for future movement toward equality seem bright.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll from April 2009 also found that 53 percent of Americans support out-of-state same-sex marriages having legal force in their state. That is a mandate for repealing DOMA.

The mandate gains strength every time family members grasp the cost of injustice and its impact on those dear to them. Last week the President heard from Kate's mom Audrey Fleming that countless moms would be happier as a result of the hospital visitation policy he announced. He answered matter-of-factly: "I like to make mothers happy."

Thousands of people knew Kate from her years as a talented actress and later as an award-winning narrator of audio books. Kate learned to use her voice and taught others to do the same.

Overcoming DOMA will require hundreds of non-LGBT allies to raise their voices and demand an end to legally-sanctioned discrimination. Such is the challenge to the President, to Congress, and to all the voters who adored Kate's work on stage and on tape. The challenge extends to those who reunite this holiday around tables or grave sites and to all who cherish fairness and freedom in every branch of our nation's family tree.

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