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Rebecca Wanzo

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DOMA Legislation Is Not Jim Crow

Posted: 05/11/2012 6:08 pm

Co-author : Cynthia Burack is a professor of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at The Ohio State University and the author of Sin, Sex, and Democracy: Antigay Rhetoric and the Christian Right. She is married in Washington, DC and not married in Ohio. As far as the federal government is concerned she is single/never married.

Like so many people, we are heartbroken at the passage of another piece of DOMA legislation. We know a number of people who worked incredibly hard to defeat Amendment One, only to learn that sixty-one percent of the voters in that state feel comfortable making them second-class citizens. And many of them will have the nerve to say that they "don't have anything against gay people." Many will even believe that they don't.

One of the things we find somewhat problematic, as do legal scholars like Janet Halley, is the continued comparison of anti-LGBT policies to Jim Crow. We understand the impulse to argue that the struggle for LGBT rights is "like race." We are, indeed, talking about civil rights. And there are some important similarities to conservative struggles against civil rights for African Americans: charges of "special rights;" mendacious characterizations of group members that inspire disgust, anger, and outrage at their audacious demands for equality; and reminders that inequality and discrimination of particular kinds are somehow part of the natural order. But all these similarities demonstrate is that the elite playbook of anti-civil rights activism is still alive and well. However, as older black voters well know, DOMA legislation is not Jim Crow. In the Jim Crow South, marriage could not undermine the entrenched racial caste system that affected every aspect of black lives. Jim Crow determined where people could work, how much they could make, what neighborhood they could live in, who they could pass on the street while driving (hint: not white people), and even, in one state, who could be their partner in a checker game. You could be beaten and lynched for "acting white," and while we certainly cannot ignore the number of people who have been beaten or killed for being or "acting" queer, the sheer numbers of brutalized black people in the Jim Crow South are breathtaking. This system of violence and inequality touched every opportunity, every breath, of every day.

Some black people might look at Ellen Degeneres and see that she seems to have everything she wants, and then compare her to the countless black entertainers, who, for all their talent and wealth, still couldn't stay in certain hotels or eat in certain restaurants. Millions left the south to escape racial terror in the south, because unless someone could pass, the threat was always there. It is not setting up a hierarchy of oppressions to remind ourselves that violence against black people in the Jim Crow South was state-sanctioned domestic terrorism against U.S. citizens unparalleled in the history of this country. And white privilege can still count for a lot today. One of the reasons we know this is because Black and Latino gays and lesbians who often have a lower socioeconomic status are thus disproportionately affected by the restrictions in DOMA legislation. Obviously, white, conservative voters are the major players in the passage of DOMA legislation. But coalitions matter, and black voters who support DOMA legislation might do well to remember that a vote for DOMAs is a vote for placing some members of the black community at further disadvantage.

DOMA is not Jim Crow, but DOMA legislation is one of the principle moral and ethical issues of our time, and this is why it is important to name the specificity of this kind of harm. Discrimination against an LGBT population is largely about a refusal to recognize queer people as citizens, but this refusal has a different tenor than previous denials of citizenship claims. Those who lead movements against LGBT people and their rights are willing to make any claim to advance the cause of installing their own conception of Christian governance and calling all American citizens to obedience. Against great odds and persistent foes, marriage has become the key issue in the LGBT rights struggle, the principle marker of equality. For this reason, it should be embraced as one of the major issues in our time--one that marks our viability as a nation that does not submit to a fundamentalist agenda.

Let's not kid ourselves: a vote for these kinds of "family values" is a vote for discrimination. And people have a right to discriminate in their churches if they wish to do so, and set policies about who can marry there. But no faux-social science literature religious proponents of DOMA can come up with will prove that it is good for the state if people are deprived of health insurance, lack the power to have their loved ones see them in the hospital or make medical decisions for them, or have children who are more vulnerable because they are only allowed one custodial parent. That may be in a church's interest, but it can't possibly be in the economic or social interest of the state.

Queer people are not going away, so a vote for DOMA is a vote to either ask them to be closeted or imperil them in ways that the state would have to address later, one way or another. Supporters of Jim Crow didn't believe that African Americans could or should change into something else. DOMA legislation is part prayer and part fairy tale that one day gay and lesbian bogeymen will disappear and leave the heterosexual nuclear family in its place. Discrimination against the LGBT population is an insidious, destructive fiction with its own history that marks specific kinds of perils for our country. It needs no analogy. It is horrific in its own right.

 
 
 
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