Opinion

With same-sex marriage vote, U.S. Senate values families. Including mine, here in Kansas.

November 30, 2022 3:33 am

A Senate vote to protect couples in same-sex marriage marks an important moment, writes Clay Wirestone. Much work remains to protect the LGBTQ community, however. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The U.S. Senate took a momentous step Tuesday, passing a same-sex marriage law that offers a vital backstop for LGBTQ folks in Kansas and the nation. While the Respect for Marriage Act falls short in some ways, it shows how far we’ve come over the past few decades.

In 1996, after all, President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law. That forbid the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, and allowed states to ignore such marriages performed elsewhere. Only five years later, in the fall of 2001, I met the man who would become my husband.

Our time together has seen sweeping change throughout these United States.

In 2001, not only was same-sex marriage illegal, but several states still made sex between people of the same gender a crime. Kansas was one of them. The dominos began to fall with Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, in which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned so-called sodomy laws. My husband and I moved to New Hampshire in 2005, which legalized civil unions three years later. In 2010, it upgraded those matches into full-fledged marriages. The next year, we became parents.

Finally, in 2015 the Supreme Court overturned the last vestiges of the Defense of Marriage Act and made same-sex marriage legal across the entire country. But that change didn’t happen in isolation. It was accompanied by a sweeping change in public attitudes toward relationships like mine. A full 71% of the public now supports same-sex marriages, according to Gallup.

With Senate approval, the bill returns to the U.S. House for final passage.

Or as U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids put it on Twitter: “Ensuring every American can marry the person they love is long overdue. Excited to get this bill across the finish line!”

 

U.S. Supreme Court members
Members of the U.S. Supreme Court pose for a photo Sept. 30, 2022, in the justices’ conference room. From left: Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Ketanji Brown Jackson, Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan and Brett Kavanaugh. (Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

Motivated to move

So why, then, did the U.S. Congress take action this year?

You can thank those onetime allies in the Supreme Court. In overturning the seemingly ironclad precedent of Roe v. Wade, hard-right justices alarmed those whose unions depended on another precedent. Justice Clarence Thomas singled out the 2015 case — Obergefell v. Hodges — as one of those ripe for reexamination.

The Respect for Marriage Act looked like an ideal response. The bill sailed through the House of Representatives this summer thanks to a surprisingly bipartisan vote. Sure, Democrats voted for it, but so did 47 Republicans. Senators sat up and took notice. Maybe, they realized, they should also support widely popular rights enjoyed by families across the country.

It took months of wrangling and an entirely superfluous religious liberty amendment, but that voyage ended in success Tuesday evening.

As I said earlier, the bill isn’t perfect. It functions as a backup plan if the Supreme Court decides at some future date to overturn Obergefell. The measure doesn’t establish a true national right for same-sex couples to marry. But it does require that states recognize all valid marriages performed in other states. Similarly, the federal government has to honor such unions. Thus, the worst-case scenario would be that some states don’t perform same-sex marriages but respect those conducted elsewhere.

“It’s complicated, and maybe unnecessarily so,” said Kansas state Rep. Stephanie Byers, one of the Legislature’s LGBTQ members. I reached out to all of them when it appeared the bill was going to pass. Byers pointed out that state income tax is based on federal law, which could lead to problems for same-sex couples of the kind seen before 2015.

“We could see a return to those frustrations and complications,” she said.

Rep. Susan Ruiz was keeping her eyes on the prize: “The ultimate goal is to codify same-sex marriage protections in every state, but at least we will have federal protections with the Respect for Marriage Act. It was encouraging to see bipartisan support in the Senate. Unfortunately, (Kansas’) U.S. Sens. (Jerry) Moran and (Roger) Marshall continue to be out of touch with the majority of Americans and Kansans that support same sex marriage.”

 

Republican gubernatorial candidate Derek Schmidt joined former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gains in Overland Park to push for approval by the Kansas Legislature of a state law requiring public educational institutions to allow participation in sports programs based on the biological sex of the athlete at birth. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Republican gubernatorial candidate Derek Schmidt joined former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gains in Overland Park to push for approval by the Kansas Legislature of a state law requiring public educational institutions to allow participation in sports programs based on the biological sex of the athlete at birth. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas challenges

As Ruiz suggests, serious work remains here in the Sunflower State.

For one thing, our sodomy law remains on the books. As I wrote during the past session, Kansas lawmakers should strike this unconstitutional law from the books immediately. Vestigial homophobia serves no useful purpose for a state desperately hoping to attract young people.

Next, our constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage should be replaced by one allowing it. Such an amendment would likely pass easily these days, so it should be an easy call for senators and representatives at the Statehouse to send it to voters in the next general election. LGBTQ Kansans must be able to marry regardless of the Supreme Court’s whims.

“Should Obergefell v. Hodges ever be overturned, Kansas law and the Kansas Constitution will require me to travel to another state to become legally married,” said state Rep. Brandon Woodard. “I look forward to returning to Topeka in January and filing legislation to repeal the statutory and constitutional bans on same-sex marriage in Kansas.”

State Rep. Heather Meyer shares his determination.

“Same-sex couples deserve the same rights, freedoms and protections as their heterosexual peers, and (the federal bill) is a great step in the right direction to ensure that those rights are protected,” she said. But Moran and Marshall’s stance “just goes to show that those of us in the Kansas LGBTQ community, and our allies, have a lot more work to do.”

In the upcoming session, that includes protecting transgender children and teenagers from state-sanctioned discrimination.

I have watched with horror over the last few years as the discrimination once leveled against gay men and lesbian women has been reconstituted to harm trans folks. Exactly the same slanders once used against us — that we’re mentally unstable, that we pose a threat to the young — have been weaponized to wound a fresh target. No one who cares about same-sex marriage or protecting the rights of their LGBTQ brothers and sisters should allow these invidious proposals to take hold.

The struggle, pain and hope persist.

 

Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin leaves the Senate floor after it passed a procedural vote on federal legislation protecting same-sex marriages, at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 16 in Washington, DC. Baldwin, the first openly gay woman to be elected to the House and the Senate, has led Senate negotiations on the bill. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Biggest picture

The vote Tuesday allows all of us Kansas and these United States to take a step back.

Our government, the one that we created and elected, can act with purpose and determination to protect minority rights. While forces of intolerance and hate gather power from a fractured society, we can protect couples and families and the love they share.

While I’m usually reluctant to put myself at the center of a story, I’m right there in the middle of this one.

This is my life.

My marriage and my family have defined who I am, just as they define the lives of so many straight couples. I could not imagine the past 21 years without my husband. I could not imagine the past 11 without our son. The ability to marry, to say who we are and what we mean to one another to the world, has enriched everything. As a scrawny teenager growing up in mid-1990s El Dorado, my life today would have sounded like an impossible dream.

I know how much road remains ahead. I know how many people need comfort and care.

I also know how far we’ve traveled. For today, at least, I plan to celebrate.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Clay spent 2017 to 2021 at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.

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