Thursday, July 4, 2013

SCOTUS decisions leave me conflicted

Posted By on Thu, Jul 4, 2013 at 9:00 AM

As a gay African-American man living in the South, the Supreme Court's recent historic rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act and the Voting Rights Act carry significant meaning for me. But they've also left me feeling a bit conflicted.


Let's start with the Defense of Marriage Act, more affectionately known as DOMA. Signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, DOMA barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages granted in states where gay marriage is legal. On Wednesday, June 26, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court deemed DOMA unconstitutional.

Although I am recently single, I was in a relationship for more than 20 years. And although we were committed to one another, our union was not legally supported, which brought into question simple things like benefits, property and even the ability to be at my partner's side when he was taken to the emergency room.

Striking down the Defense of Marriage Act not only changed the dynamic for many gay families - it validated them in a way that had been historically absent. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, "The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity." Justice Kennedy went on to share that, "By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment."

This should be a good thing, right? So why am I conflicted?

Probably because this ruling sanctions same-sex marriage in 13 states and the District of Columbia, but surprise, surprise, North Carolina - and the 37 other states where gay marriage isn't legal - is not one of them.

To explain what this ruling means on a more local level, I spoke with someone who is historically committed to equality for not just the LGBT community but all communities, someone I respect: Q Notes Editor Matt Comer.

"In short, the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA changes nothing for same-sex couples who seek to marry here," Comer told me. "North Carolina still does not recognize, nor does it perform, same-sex marriages. On the positive side, those LGBT families here who do have legal marriages from elsewhere are immediately eligible for the more than 1,100 benefits, rights and responsibilities the federal government affords married couples. That's a step in the right direction - one that will ultimately pave the way for full equality for all families across these great United States."

Any historically marginalized community's movement toward equality has been a process, so although the ruling does not affect my immediate situation, I can see the big picture.

Maybe I'd feel better if we hadn't retreated on another front - ending discrimination in voting.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensured that state and local governments could not pass laws that would deny American citizens the right to vote based on race. The Supreme Court's recent ruling on the Voting Rights Act removed a safeguard in monitoring jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory practices. Now, those areas don't have to seek pre-approval of any voting changes that may affect minorities.

On the one hand we should celebrate a step in the right direction of marriage equality for all couples. But by amending the Voting Rights Act, SCOTUS basically opened the door for voter suppression, which plunges us back to a pre-civil rights era of discriminatory practices and compromised democracy.

Mere hours after the SCOTUS decision on the Voting Rights Act, North Carolina legislators announced a slew of voting laws that would negatively affect minorities in this state, including measures that would eliminate early voting, Sunday voting and same-day registration provisions.

The North Carolina House recently passed a voter-ID bill, a move that didn't go unnoticed by state activists. Soon after the vote, North Carolina NAACP President Rev. Dr. William Barber sent an email to members to explain the bill.

"The North Carolina State House just passed a bill requiring identification to vote but prohibiting the use of private college IDs as an acceptable form of identification. It's the first of several new laws the state legislature is trying to enact to restrict voting rights for people of color, as well as young, disabled, and elderly voters."
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "Justice cannot be for one side alone, but must be for both."

I guess my real conflict comes from the fact that I cannot compartmentalize two communities that I am linked to, so it does not matter which one is being marginalized. Either way, I'm hurt.

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