The Impact of the Defense of Marriage Act

Megan Gerold, Staffer

Despite same-sex marriage being legal since 2015, the laws of the past still reach out from their shallow graves. Written into law in 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) gave permission to states that do not celebrate LGBT+ marriages to deny lawfully permitted marriages of LGBT+ couples. On top of that, it also defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman, completely denying LGBT+ couples the benefits given to married couples. This act was a response to the modern steps being taken by Hawaii to legalize same-sex marriage, which ultimately fell through. The rest of the states did not want to have to recognize the legality of these marriages and provide all of the benefits awarded to opposite-sex couples. While the Respect for Marriage act, which repealed DOMA, passed in Dec. of 2022, it still affects LGBT+ issues. For Austin LGBT+ member Janae Pitts legislative decisions and instability have affected her decisions on marriage with her wife. 


“When the supreme court was first discussing the overturning of Roe v. Wade we became nervous that they would then attempt to overturn Obergefell V Hodges,” Pitts said. “We were already engaged but decided to have a civil ceremony as well. We missed out on having our families and friends there with us when it officially happened.”


Obergefell V Hodges was a court case whose verdict was that states were required to liscense and recognize same sex marriage, and if it were to be overturned along with the respect for marriage act it would cause states like Texas to be able to determine if they want to outlaw same sex marriages. Author of “The Engagement”, a book about the struggle for marriage equality, Sasha Issenberg believes the supreme court overturning same sex marriage is very unlikely, but if it were to happen the Respect for Marriage act would provide security for previously married couples. 


“What the Respect for Marriage Act will have done is ensure that couples who are already married and live in a state that goes ahead and ban same sex marriage, that they’ll be recognized by the federal government,” Issenberg said. “So when it comes to how they pay their taxes, or social security benefits, stuff like that, they won’t lose anything, and the federal government will still see them as married.”


The evolution of legislation for LGBT couples has taken a large step forward in equality according to LGBT+ freshman Katie Stout. However, there’s still a sense of fear that comes with a political environment who continues to push anti-LGBT+ legislation.


“There was a point in time where gay marriage was completely illegal, so obviously things have gotten better, but it also could be better,” Stout said. “It would be much better if gay marriage was not just not illegal, but written into law. I think that is something we can really hope and push for.”


Societal views play a large part in legislation both with campaigning against LGBT+ rights and with supporters of LGBT+ rights according to Issenberg. In order to successfully fight against DOMA voters had to first grasp the idea of what same sex marriage was.


“I think the biggest hurdle that supporters of marriage equality had to face was that marriage equality was basically unimaginable to most Americans,” Issenberg said. “It was just for a long time this almost imaginary thing where people couldn’t visualize because they’ve never actually seen it before.” 


The defense of marriage act is largely a state right and benefits issue because states did not want to have to give social security or tax benefits to couples married in other states. The Respect for Marriage act ensures that these benefits are given to LGBT+ couples.


“You can end up in a situation where the couple living in Austin can hypothetically file a federal tax return that says they’re married, but their state tax return doesn’t treat them as married,” Issenberg said. “There are a whole lot of things under state law that would end up being different than the standard federal law. So it (the respect for marriage act) does a lot in terms of ensuring that under federal law, folks would continue.”


The purpose of laws is to protect the safety of the public and uphold citizens rights. However, the Defense of Marriage Act does the opposite of that, so it’s important for legislators to take steps in the right direction in order to ensure that queer rights are being protected.