Living Through DOMA

July 16, 2013

I have never been more thrilled to renounce [a little of] my cynicism and admit that I was wrong. In my previous post, I parsed and predicted the Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling on DOMA, and I admitted my own pessimism, borne out of a decade of bureaucratic exhaustion, that the outcome could possibly be favorable for me and the millions of others who are in one way or another adversely affected by the discrimination DOMA demanded.

It turns out my pessimism was misplaced (although, reading the dissenting opinions reminded me why it was perhaps not unreasonable). What has somehow miraculously happened is, I believe, the best possible ruling we could have hoped for—one that I admit I didn’t even allow myself to hope for before it happened. The federal government will now recognize same-sex marriages from states that perform them for the purposes of federal benefits—immigration, Social Security, etc. The ruling leaves room for bastions of conservatism to remain in states that “aren’t ready” for such progress, and as much as this is disappointing for those of us who want to live in our home states with full recognition, we have also seen, historically, the consequences of bringing about “radical” change before a critical mass is ready for it (the oft-cited example of Roe v. Wade igniting the pro-life movement comes to mind). So for the moment, my beloved North Carolina will be allowed to continue its unfortunate decline. But that won’t change the federal government’s recognition of Jodi’s and my New York marriage certificate when we file our petition for her permanent residence in the coming weeks!

And that brings me to the most important part about the Windsor opinion (and I read it cover to cover, if you can do that with a PDF, savoring every word, even the boring part about why the plaintiffs had standing and why the court had jurisdiction to hear the case): though the federalism argument was used to argue that the federal government had no business instituting DOMA in the first place, the crux of the opinion was based not on states’ rights, but on equal protection. Many concrete examples of the law’s injustice were cited, followed by some of the most beautiful words I’ve ever read:

DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.

Reading that, for the first time since the fall of 2003 (when I first realized exactly how I, personally, was going to suffer as a result of DOMA, and that no loopholes existed; no work-arounds were possible), I felt whole. I felt loved and protected by my country; I felt fully American, not second-class, not the target of legalized discrimination. And I began to believe again, just a little, in the American dream, the promise of equality, the ideals we are fed as children. It is scary to take such a risk, like an abused dog finally allowing himself to be petted again by a different, kinder master. But it is no exaggeration to say that I read “the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution” and thought, for the first time in my adult life, “that’s me they’re talking about. I am that person.”

I don’t know exactly which of my 11,583 days has been the best. Which one would I re-live if I could, like Emily in Our Town, a day that holds everything good I would want to remember about this life. But June 26th, 2013 is up there, along with our wedding days themselves. (Ask any bi-national couple; there will almost certainly be multiple celebrations!) And I was not a person who had dreamed of her wedding day since childhood—I was the cynic whose usual stance was “I love you; why do I need to spend money and say it in front of people in order for it to count?” But I was blown away by the sheer joy of our wedding, and the profundity of feeling the love of so many people directed at us, like hundreds of wings bearing us up above all the struggle and hard yards of the journey ahead and behind. Everyone deserves to feel that at some point in their life—to have a day they could point to and say, “That was the one. That was the best life has to offer.” To have unqualified joy, not denigrated by anyone.

My series on this blog has, up to now, been called Living Under DOMA. I’ve tried to make the law’s effects just a little more real for those who haven’t experienced them firsthand. I’ve tried to show how a law passed in an ivory tower can wreak real and lasting damage on actual people; how it can pervade almost every aspect of someone’s existence. But I’m so happy to be able to conclude the series this way: no longer living under DOMA. Jodi and I are in it for the long haul—we’ve lived through DOMA—and now we can get on with our lives.

What does that mean for us, exactly? Well, we aren’t boarding the first plane back to the USA. Sydney is beautiful, and now we get to treat it as a place we get to live for the time being, rather than a place we have to live because we had no other choice. But we are applying for Jodi’s green card before the US government changes its mind. And in a few years, when Jodi has finished school here, we’ll decide where to go and what to do next. But the important thing is that we’ll have the choice. We’ll both be able to live and work in either of the countries we call home. We’ll be able to continue our educations, should we so desire, as residents of those countries with the option of financial aid. We’ll be able to contemplate a deeper form of “settling down” than we have had the option to before—buying a house, or having kids. We’ll be able to be with our families when they need us, where they need us. And someday, we’ll be able to land in an American airport and walk through the same line together, present our one-per-family customs declaration and have the officer welcome us home.