Today’s DOMA Repeal Hearing: Our New Federal Program in Action
July 20, 2011
As I head back to New York after this morning’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Respect for Marriage Act (to repeal the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act”), I’m thinking of how proud I am of the program we’ve set up at Freedom to Marry to elevate the conversation inside the Beltway about marriage.
When we decided to establish a Washington presence, we didn’t do it because wanted to have a DC office. We identified a gap and saw a real need for a campaign focused every day, and over the long haul, on one thing—how to grow momentum for winning the freedom to marry at the federal level.
Less than four months ago, Freedom to Marry hired Jo Deutsch, a seasoned Capitol Hill veteran who’s also the lesbian mom of three, to serve as federal director and launch our presence in DC. Since then, under Jo’s leadership, we’ve assembled a bipartisan team of lobbyists and communications specialists who are doing a powerful job of making our case in DC--on Capitol Hill, with the White House, with DC opinion-leaders, and the press.
We set several very specific, short-term objectives:
- To get the Obama Administration to apply heightened scrutiny to sexual orientation as it considered the constitutionality of DOMA.
- To get the President to endorse the Respect for Marriage Act.
- To get a Respect for Marriage Act bill introduced in the Senate, with a significant number of cosponsors.
- To get a Senate hearing on the Respect for Marriage Act bill.
Check, check, check, and check!
The power of our DC effort starts at the top, with one of our movement’s most powerful assets, Evan Wolfson. Fifteen years ago, Evan—Freedom to Marry’s founder and president—was litigating for marriage in Hawaii. That work was the catalyst for successful campaigns around the world for the freedom to marry. Unfortunately, Congress—acting out of fear and discrimination—enacted the discriminatory DOMA law in response to this progress.
Today, it was great to see Evan serve as one of two expert witnesses on our side advocating for Congress to fix the profound error of judgment it made 15 years ago, to end “the gay exception” in how the feds treat marriages as he put it (you can watch Evan's testimony here). On Monday, I had a chance to look at Evan’s law school thesis on the freedom to marry, from 1983. He’d brought it in to the office because a reporter had wanted to see it. It was typewritten, with white-out marks, but there it was—a framework of the campaign that he has been leading, one that started out as a lonely crusade and which has now captured the passion of our community and our allies throughout the world. Pretty remarkable.
When Judiciary Committee staff needed a Californian with a powerful personal story for the hearing, they turned to us, knowing of our focused work capturing stories of same-sex couples who could speak to the real-world harms of DOMA. And for those of you who didn’t see it, Ron Wallen’s testimony about the fact that he is losing his home as a result of DOMA, after just losing his spouse after 58 years together, was truly moving. Our video about Ron’s tragic story is here.
Immediately after the hearing, our DC lobby team went back to the work of making lobby visits to members of Congress to make the case about the harms of DOMA. In these visits, we’re focusing on potentially persuadable Republican members. Many of these members tell us it’s the first time they’ve really been engaged on the issue before. While we don’t expect an avalanche of immediate results, we are building the case so that we can turn the Respect for Marriage Act into a bipartisan bill, just as we together turned the marriage equality law in Albany into a bipartisan measure. This will help us with momentum whether we end up knocking down DOMA through the courts or an act of Congress.
Additionally, our DC shop is working closely with our field team to identify the districts in which we need to collect strong personal stories and conduct in-district visits. Our field team, in turn, is partnering with state-wide LGBT organizations like Equality California and Vermont Freedom to Marry to identify the couples and families that will share their stories and we’re working with them to prepare them to do so.
Just a few months in, and we have real results to show. Freedom to Marry is in DC for the long-haul, putting points on the board by the day. Stay tuned and get engaged!