Like nearly everyone in the gay community, I’m ecstatic about the Supreme Court’s ruling to strike down a key part of the (oh so condescendingly named) Defense of Marriage Act. There is so much to be happy about. Binational same-sex couples (where one is a U.S. citizen and the other is not) like these can now live together in the U.S. Gay widows like this one don’t face financial ruin because they can’t collect partner’s Social Security benefits or inherit property free of taxes. (Side note, I found that story by googling “gay widow loses house” – I knew there would be one.) An important legal precedent has been set which will make it that much harder for states like mine to retain their prohibitions on same-sex marriage. And, if I’m being honest, I’ve had a good bit of schadenfreude watching marriage opponents bemoan this ruling.
But this blog isn’t about broad social commentary on same-sex marriage – there’s plenty of that elsewhere. This blog is about one couple’s experience as a gay married couple in a state that doesn’t recognize us. Since the ruling many of our friends have asked us what it means for us. Well here you go.
In our house H and I have hanging up what I consider our two marriage certificates. One is the a poster with our vows and the signatures of everyone who came to our wedding in North Carolina. The other is our marriage license issued by the state of Vermont. So we’re married according to most people we meet, the state of Vermont (along with twelve other states, five Native American tribes, and the District of Columbia), and now the federal government*. But we’re not married according to the state of North Carolina. The Supreme Court struck down the part of DOMA that allowed the federal government not to recognize our marriage, but not the part that allowed individual states to do the same.
All this means that in our everyday lives DOMA won’t do all that much. We will still have to fill out all of those Affidavits of Domestic Partnership and rely on our employers to make the choice to treat us as married (which, fortunately, they do). We can now (probably) file our federal taxes as a married couple, but our state taxes still have to be filed separately. We still worry about our relationship not being respected if one of us goes to the hospital or, god forbid, dies.
We took a trip to Washington last month, and I was struck by how much freer I felt in a state that recognized our marriage. It’s a little silly – and I think about it way too much – but even simple things like holding H’s hand in public felt safer because I knew that the government had my back. When we’re in Washington or another state with marriage equality, we are officially equal to straight couples, even if some people individually don’t see us that way. In North Carolina we are generally surrounded by people who see us as equal, but we know that the state does not. So for now DOMA means a little more feeling of freedom, but also a reminder of what we are missing.
*Okay so recognition by the federal government isn’t totally clear yet. As it is now, some federal agencies, like the IRS define marriage by where you got your license. So to them we’re married. Others, like the Social Security Administration, define it by where you currently live – so to them we’re not married. This isn’t really an issue for anyone but same-sex couples because everyone else is married everywhere if they’re married anywhere. For example, some states allow first cousins to marry while others don’t (check out my quiz to see if you can name those states that sanction cousin marriages but not gay ones). If I married my cousin in one of those states (well, my male cousin) then moved to one that did not have the same law, the new state would still be obligated to recognize us. Anyway, it seems like the Obama administration could direct all federal agencies to define marriage by where the license was issued, meaning that no matter where they lived any gay couple could travel to a state for the license, like H and I did, and be federally recognized.