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Gay History – September 10, 1996: Congress Passes the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)

On September 10, 1996 the US Senate dealt a double defeat to gay-rights activists, voting to reject same-sex marriage in federal law (Defense of Marriage Act – DOMA) by a vote of 85-14. It also rejected (50-49) a separate bill that would have barred job discrimination against gays. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act

Initially introduced in May 1996, DOMA passed both houses of Congress by large, veto-proof majorities and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in  late September 1996. By defining “spouse” and its related terms to signify a heterosexual couple in a recognized marriage, Section 3 codified non-recognition of same-sex marriages for all federal purposes, including insurance benefits for government employees, social security survivors’ benefits, immigration, bankruptcy, and the filing of joint tax returns, as well as excluding same-sex spouses from the scope of laws protecting families of federal officers (18 U. S. C. §115), laws evaluating financial aid eligibility, and federal ethics laws applicable to opposite-sex spouses.

Democratic Senators voted for the bill 32 to 14 (with Pryor of Arkansas absent), and Democratic Representatives voted for it 118 to 65, with 15 not participating. All Republicans in both houses voted for the bill with the sole exception of the one openly gay Republican Congressman, Rep. Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin

While his official political position at that time Bill Clinton at that time was against same-sex marriage, Clinton criticized DOMA as “unnecessary and divisive” But Clinton, who was traveling when Congress acted, signed it into law promptly upon returning to Washington, D.C., on September 21, 1996.

In 2013, Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary at the time, recalled that “[Clinton’s] posture was quite frankly driven by the political realities of an election year in 1996 and wanting  to get re-elected.  The reaction from the gay community to Clinton signing DOMA was shock,  anger, and the feeling of being betrayed.

On December 7, 2012, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of the United States v. Windsor

Oral arguments were heard on March 27, 2013. In a 5–4 decision on June 26, 2013, the Court ruled Section 3 of DOMA to be unconstitutional, declaring it “a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment.

On June 26, 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the 14th Amendment requires all U.S. state laws to recognize same-sex marriages. This left Section 2 of DOMA as superseded and unenforceable.

It took almost 20 years, billions of dollars, and many lives ruined to dismantle the Defense of Marriage Act.

We are still waiting for some version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to give projections to the LGBT community against discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations.

 

 

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Will Kohler

Will Kohler is a noted LGBT historian, journalist and owner of Back2Stonewall.com. A longtime gay activist, Will fought on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic with ACT-UP and continues fighting today for LGBT acceptance and full equality. Will’s work has been referenced in notable media venues as MSNBC and BBC News, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Hollywood Reporter, and Raw Story,

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