Today in Gay History: Senate Passes DOMA

9.10.2013

By Andrew Belonsky

Fearing Hawaiian marriage rebellion, Senate passed "wholesome" discrimination.

Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie yesterday called for a special session of his Congress to pass marriage equality there, a move that would make it the 14th state to allow same-sex couples to tie the knot. Something similar was happening in Hawaii 17 years ago, when local lawmakers and activists began rabble-rousing for marriage. They created such a stir, and caught so many people off guard, that conservative and liberals alike joined forces to pass the Defense of Marriage Act, which was given Senate approval on this date in 1996. (The House had approved the bill 342-67 in July of 1996.)

"H.R. 3396 is a response to a very particular development in the State of Hawaii. As will be explained in greater detail below, the state courts in Hawaii appear to be on the verge of requiring that State to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples," read the bill's introduction. Former Republican Rep. Bob Barr, the bill's author, told the New York Times that the bill was needed to combat "the flames of hedonism, the flames of narcissism, the flames of
self-centered morality [that] are licking at the very foundation of our society, the family unit."

The bill's writers also described this federal overreach as being unparalleled in its "wholesomeness:"

"Certainly no legislation can be supposed more wholesome and necessary in the founding of a free, self-governing commonwealth, fit to take rank as one of the co-ordinate States of the Union, than that which seeks to establish it on the basis of the idea of the family, as consisting in and springing from the union for life of one man and one woman in the holy state of matrimony; the sure foundation of all that is stable and noble in our civilization; the best guaranty of that reverent morality which is the source of all beneficent progress in social and political improvement."

The Senate voted 85-14 to pass the law and within a few weeks President Bill Clinton signed it.

It was a dark day for LGBT rights, and one from which many feared equality would never recover. But of course that wasn't the case. It took many years, millions and millions of dollars and people, and the combined efforts of legislative, judicial, cultural, and social work, but DOMA was finally dismantled by the Supreme Court last June. The majority opinion in that case, United States v. Windsor, read: "DOMA’s avowed purpose and practical effect are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States." DOMA's end opened the aisles for marriage equality and laid the groundwork for Gov. Abercrombie's move in Hawaii, where this all began.

It's worth noting that DOMA wasn't the only anti-gay legislation discussed on September 10, 1996. The Senate also heard and subsequently rejected a bill that would have prohibited homophobic employment discrimination. That bill was squashed, but, in another turn of political history, has since been expanded to include gender identity and will be brought up again in the forthcoming session of Congress, where it's expected to pass and has presidential approval.

(Image via Getty Images)

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