Same-Sex Marriage Victory, Voting Rights Loss: My Roller Coaster

4 years ago

Today the Supreme Court of the United States announced two important decisions on the legal status of same-sex marriages.

In the first case, the court struck down one of two provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a law that has allowed the federal government not to recognize same-sex marriages made in states that allow them. Now, in states that allow same-sex couples to marry, the federal government must recognize these marriages. (The second provision of the law, that states may refuse to recognize same-sex marriages made elsewhere is seemingly untouched.)

In the second case, the court declined to rule on a challenge from supporters of California's Proposition 8 that would have banned the same-sex marriages made in that state. The Supreme Court's decision not to decide leaves same-sex marriage legal in California but has no particular effects on other states' laws.

The author and her family, Image Credit: Shannon LC Cate

I’ve often argued that at least in my family’s case, the reason my partner and I need legal marriage is because what we call the “Queer Tax” harms our children. We lose roughly $5,000 per year because our 10-year marriage is not recognized at the federal level. That kind of money could really add up in a college fund with compounding interest over eighteen years. It’s a large chunk of what could have been private school tuition. It’s a lot of might-have-been ballet lessons.

So how am I to feel when the Supreme Court decides today that my partner and I could potentially be legally married, but my daughters—both Black—had their future voting rights threatened by the striking down of a key aspect of the 1965 Voting Rights Act yesterday?

I am cynical enough to think that we won the right to (sort of) marry because queers are imagined as white and middle, or upper-class, like Ellen Degeneres or Anderson Cooper. Those people are comfortably familiar enough to Supreme Court-types to “deserve” civil rights, whereas poor southern Black grandmothers without driver's licenses to show at the polls aren't as obviously deserving of a vote.

It’s this imaginary idea—along with the racist notion that all Black people are homophobic--that is too often wielded to divide and conquer us as minority groups with many interests in common. But queer rights and the rights of racial minorities are not in competition. If we pit them against each other, we all lose.

So, in spite of all the rainbow confetti flying through the air, I don’t feel like dancing today, near as we are to the grave of the Voting Rights Act. Instead, I want to remind everyone of a few facts:

1. Queers come in all races, religions and nationalities.

I go to a church located in the Obama’s Southside Chicago neighborhood. It’s an integrated church with a mix of white and Black members, as well as a few Asian Americans and foreign nationals from regions like the West Indies and Africa. It celebrates people of all sexual orientations. The leadership—including the ordained leadership—reflects this diversity. So much for the assumption that all Black Americans—especially Christian ones—are homophobic.

As for Americans who are neither white nor Black, just two days ago I got one of those blast-from-the-past Facebook requests from a college friend I haven’t seen in over 20 years. He is a naturalized U.S. citizen stuck in his country of origin now because his partner—a national of that country—can’t get a visa to join him in the U.S. They are not white, or Christian, or wealthy. But they are gay, and the DOMA has harmed them directly.

2. Queers are, contrary to stereotype, likelier to be poor than their straight counterparts.

Too many folks don’t think they know any queers, so they look to celebrities for their examples. But for a number of reasons—including lack of the financial security of legal marriage and the absence of workplace nondiscrimination laws--queers and their families struggle more financially than their heterosexual peers. African American lesbians—hit by racism, sexism and homophobia all three--are struggling the hardest.

3. Even those white, middle-class queers have an interest in race-based civil rights protections.

Though some of the more conservative among them try their best to obscure it, the fact is that the same logic that allows racism allows homophobia. The same system that sustains and promotes white supremacy sustains and promotes heterosexism and the patriarchy it thrives on. These problems are not isolated issues, they are part and parcel of each other. They feed on each other. As Martin Luther King said, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

In my family’s case, I suppose I should be happy that we have theoretically gained the right to marry. (Actually, in our case, we will have to wait until Illinois moves to calling its marriage-like civil unions “marriages” before we can benefit from this decision.) But college funds, private school tuitions and ballet lessons aside, I am just not feeling triumphant about how the Supreme Court has changed the lives of my children this week.

If I have to choose, I’ll give them a vote over a ballet lesson any day. But I have a dream that someday I won’t have to choose.

How about you? Has the Supreme Court changed your family’s fate this week? For better, worse...or something more complicated?


Shannon writes about family at Peter's Cross Station and about writing at Muse of Fire

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