This blog post is third in a series written by our summer LGBT Project legal interns. The other posts are "LGBT Human Rights Gone Global", "The Roots of Homophobia" and "Changing the Culture of Bullying".
When my partner came out to her ninety-two-year old grandmother and announced her plan to marry me, the reaction wasn't great. Not because of a fire-and-brimstone lecture about immorality and the evils of lesbianism. She was worried that, on top of the gender wage gap, we'd be facing an uphill battle just to get the same legal and economic protections under the law as opposite-sex married couples. (If only every grandmother were as awesome as she!)
It was an unexpected conversation, but she had a point: even though my partner and I could legally get married in California (at the time), we would still be denied hundreds of benefits that federal law reserves for one-man-one-woman marriages. President Clinton made that a virtual certainty in 1996 when he signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), defining marriage as the union between one man and one woman under federal law. Fifteen years after DOMA went into effect, gay and lesbian couples—even those who are legally married—are still denied these rights. Although President Obama instructed the Department of Justice to stop defending DOMA against constitutional challenges in February 2011, the law is still on the books. But things are starting to look up.
On Tuesday, Obama announced his support for the Respect for Marriage Act (H.R. 3567), which would repeal DOMA and require the federal government to recognize marriage equality once and for all. Just Wednesday morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on the Respect for Marriage Act. The hearing revealed that, while federal recognition of marriage equality would be great in and of itself, it means more than simply acknowledging the legitimacy of LGBT relationships. The numerous economic benefits available to married opposite-sex couples would finally extend to married same-sex couples, as well. For example, married same-sex couples are currently denied federal estate tax spousal exemption, which over the next two years will force survivors of same-sex spouses to pay over $4 million more (.pdf) in estate taxes than survivors of opposite-sex spouses. Also, the government currently taxes health benefits for same-sex spouses of private sector employees, but not for opposite-sex spouses. Because of this, employees with same-sex spouses are forced to pay, on average, over $1000 more per month than employees whose opposite-sex spouses receive the very same benefit. Should DOMA be repealed, same-sex couples would no longer be denied these—or countless other—benefits. Here at the ACLU of Southern California, we believe economic justice is inextricably intertwined with civil liberties, so leveling the financial playing field for LGBT families is a cause we can stand behind. The Respect for Marriage Act is a good start.
Kate Allen is a rising 2L at USC Law School and a summer legal intern at the LGBT Project of the ACLU of Southern California. This fall, Kate will join the staff of the Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice and serve on the board of OUTLaw, USC's LGBT law student organization.