DOMA, Prop 8 Rulings Bittersweet for Local LGBT Community

Last week, in a landmark 5-4 decision the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a significant part of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal law barring same sex-marriage. Section 3, the key provision now ruled “unconstitutional,” had prevented the U.S. government from allowing gay and lesbian married couples to receive federal benefits. The court also refused to overturn the California Supreme Court’s ruling that Proposition 8, a measure that stopped California gay and lesbian couples from marrying, was unconstitutional.

The LGBT community celebrated the historic wins around the country, and San Antonio was no exception. At an impromptu gathering outside Bexar County Courthouse that drew an estimated 200 residents, members of the Community Alliance for a United San Antonio (CAUSA), Human Rights Campaign and GetEqual Texas reveled in the victory.

But the triumph brought on by the court’s opinion in United States v. Windsor also serves as bittersweet reminder for LGBT activists that the fight for equality – both locally and statewide – is far from over. With no citywide protections in place in San Antonio or statewide in Texas, LGBT couples here continue to be shut out of the ruling’s benefits.

“We are thrilled to see the federal government recognize lesbians and gays as deserving of equal protection under the constitution, but the ruling doesn’t directly change law in Texas,” said Chuck Smith, executive director of Equality Texas. “Although, it will certainly be a momentum booster for the work already underway to bring the freedom to marry to Texas.”

That’s because Texas has it’s own version of DOMA in place. Proposition 2, added to the Texas constitution in 2005, limits marriage to one man and one woman. While efforts to dismantle it, including five bills filed this past Legislative session, have been attempted none have made much progress. Ahead of the recently called second special session, Democratic lawmaker Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth) plans to keep pushing by reintroducing marriage equality legislation.

“The Supreme Court found today that the federal government acted to ‘impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages.’ I can assure you the Texas Legislature did the same. As such, it is time to renounce our homophobic state laws and usher in marriage equality in Texas,” said Rep. Burnam in a statement.

His initial bill, HB 1300, failed to make it out of committee; with a staunchly conservative governor at the helm, realistically its prospects this go around appear slim-to-none. Groups like GetEqual are heading efforts to lobby for the bill at the start of the second session, which begins July 1.

Calling on Governor Rick Perry to add marriage equality to the special session – a long shot – Burnam alluded to the fight over abortion legislation, saying, “Clearly granting equal rights to all Texans is more urgent than imposing restrictions on women’s health and liberty based on junk science and sham medical research.”

And while Lawrence v. Texas – a similarly historic Supreme Court decision made 10 years ago – marked the end of the illegality of sexual activity among same-sex couples, the red state still keeps the archaic rule in its books. The only way to officially erase it from the penal code is through a constitutional amendment, another legislative attempt that continually fails to pass during session.

Despite the landscape, Smith is hopeful in the long run. In a poll commissioned this year by Equality Texas, the largest increase showed up in results for those who support same-sex marriage – 47.9 percent of respondents were in favor of allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, a 5.2 percent increase since 2010.

And the recent decision adds to Smith’s optimism, “While the ruling doesn’t set precedent that can be applied in the state, the Supreme Court showed us there is no rational basis to treat gay people differently.” He’s confident that lawmakers “on the right side of history” will continue to file bills to tear down Prop 2 until it’s successful, he says. 

Celebrating the national victory with her 10-year-old son and partner of a decade, CAUSA Co-Chair Dee Dee Belmares called the moment “exciting” but asked rhetorically, “what about the other 37 states?”

“It’s only a matter of time that all states recognize equality, but it’s going to take some time, especially in a state as conservative as Texas,” said Belmares. “When it could happen? We’re not sure, but there will definitely be a fight for it.”

Echoing fellow activists in the LGBT community, Jennifer Falcon, organizer of GetEqual Texas in San Antonio said her organization celebrates with the 12 states that this will effect, but also stresses, “we have a long way to go.” The gains are historic but the city and state battle for similar progress still wages, she said.

“While it’s a big victory, we have a lot more road ahead of us,” said Falcon.

“And we must remember, LGBT equality is more than just marriage,” she added, pointing to the 29 states, including Texas, that still fail to include non-discrimination job protection laws for the LGBT community.

Smith agrees. Before Texas can set its sights squarely on gaining marital equality, the state has to focus on securing non-discrimination rules. “All states that have the freedom to marry started with enacting employment discrimination laws. It’s the first step on the road to freedom to marry,” says Smith.

Locally, activists believe the high court ruling may help influence the passage of the city’s own non-discrimination ordinance, a hotly debated proposed measure that grants the LGBT community equal protections for employment, public accommodations, fair housing, city employment, contracts, and appointments of board and commission members by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to part of municipal code prohibiting discrimination. A vote on the ordinance is expected in August.

“I’m hoping it’s a wake up call for those city council members that might still be undecided [about the ordinance],” said Belmares. “I hope they see it as a general change in the way the country is treating LGBT people. More states and cities are looking at equality across the board.”

And while some couples in San Antonio are able to enjoy domestic partner benefits today, those protections are relegated to city employees and came after a long battle that pitted equal rights activists against right-wing faith leaders.

Adam Greenup, city hall’s LGBT community liaison, expressed enthusiasm about the progress made nationally, but also cautioned the victory’s flipside.

“There seems to be a sense that it’s a giant leap forward, and it is, but it’s nothing to rest our laurels on, especially here in Texas. It’s hard not to think about the competitive advantage other states have now. What’s worrisome is that it’s going to be more difficult to make the case that LGBT people should work and live here when they can be protected in other states.”

For instance, couples that wish to relocate from same-sex marriage protected states like New York, Washington, and Iowa may be granted federal marital benefits – like social security, healthcare, and hospital visitation rights – but will not be recognized in Texas and won’t be awarded any of those rights by the Lone Star state itself, less than alluring for gay and lesbian couples nationwide. And even obtaining those federal benefits could pose an obstacle, as some governmental agencies determine who receives marital perks based on where you live not where you got married.

Chuck Smith with Equality Texas told the Current “For legally married couples living in states that do not recognize their marriage, there are still many questions about when they will be equally able to share in federal protections, responsibilities, and programs. This is because the federal government typically defers to the states in determining whether a couple’s marriage is valid.” Smith did note that employees of the federal government will receive benefits no matter which state they currently call home.

“It’s exciting to see the changes happening,” said a still-optimistic Greenup. “I’m hopeful that we’re going to keep working to achieve that level of quality here to ensure people don’t make the decision to leave.”

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