The following appeared in the Burlington Free Press's My Turn column on June 5, 2012.
My Turn ~ Road to Full Marriage Equality
Positive Signs Along the Road to Full Marriage Equality, but We Still Have a Ways to Go
We are fortunate as Vermonters to live in a state where all couples and families are respected under state law. Vermont has been a leader on civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals and their families, and, since 2009, same-sex couples have had the same freedom to marry in Vermont as heterosexual couples.
Nationally, recent positive developments in support of marriage equality act collectively as a beacon of hope for same-sex couples and their families. Yet, as long as discriminatory laws remain in place, all same-sex couples, even those in marriage-equality states like Vermont, will continue to live in fear and be vulnerable because they are denied equal protection under federal law.
The latest headlines on marriage equality have accurately conveyed a sense of forward movement. On May 24th, another federal court found that the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken joins the growing group of federal judges who agree that DOMA violates the equal protection rights of same-sex couples.
Here in Vermont, common-sense fairness prevailed recently when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services granted deportation relief to a bi-national couple from Dummerston. Though Japanese-born Takako Ueda and her American spouse Frances Herbert have been together for over a decade and were legally married in Vermont last year, because of DOMA, their marriage receives no federal recognition. Ueda risked deportation solely because she is married to a woman. It took the couple's bravery to publicly fight for their right to stay together, along with the strong leadership of our Vermont Congressional delegation, to bring about this compassionate outcome.
Perhaps most notably, President Barack Obama announced his personal support for allowing same-sex couples the freedom to marry. May 9, 2012 will be remembered by many in the LGBT community as a historic day, one that lifted our hearts in hope.
These encouraging developments, however, have not yet yielded any comprehensive policy or legal changes that would fully protect same-sex couples and their families, either here in Vermont or elsewhere in the United States.
While bi-national same-sex couples like Ueda and Herbert are fortunate to live in a state with a Congressional delegation that is willing to stand up for their equality, other bi-national couples lack such support and face the constant threat of deportation, of having their families torn apart, simply because they are in a same-sex relationship.
Although our state has led the way on marriage equality, Vermont married same-sex couples continue to face discrimination federally. For example, we must file two sets of tax returns, whereas other married couples can file jointly. Because the patchwork of legal rights throughout the country does not ensure the same blanket marriage protections to same-sex couples that it does to heterosexual couples, we must travel with copies of our various legal documents (such as medical and financial powers of attorney and adoption orders), and, even then, there is no assurance those documents will be honored in other states. Furthermore, many couples cannot afford the legal costs required to craft such paperwork, which only approximates the federal protections automatically granted to married heterosexual couples. Until DOMA is repealed, in-state marriage equality does not translate into federal marriage equality, and Vermont same-sex couples continue to be treated as “less than” other Vermont married couples.
Additionally, we must remember that most states still prohibit same-sex couples from marrying, either through amendments to their constitution and/or in statutory language. Anti-gay, anti-equality advocates are working in every state to deny same-sex couples basic legal protections. The passage of Amendment One in North Carolina is the most recent example of a successful attempt to write discrimination into a state constitution.
In short, though public support for marriage equality grows every day, and the opinions of more and more political leaders and legal experts bend toward fairness, we still have a long way to go. Until there is full federal marriage equality, Vermont Freedom to Marry will continue its work on repealing DOMA, on supporting other state organizations to achieve and maintain in-state equality, and on being the Vermont resource on marriage equality.
The historic and celebratory developments in favor of equality should not lull us into apathy but, rather, serve as inspiration to persist until justice is met. Vermont has always been a leading voice for equality, and with the support of all fair-minded Vermonters, we will continue to be a beacon of hope in the pursuit of equality for all American families.
Volunteer Board Member of Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force