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Reflecting on the 15th anniversary of DOMA: Oral history #1


By Adam Bink

As this is the 15th anniversary of the passage and signing of DOMA (President Clinton signed it into law on September 21st, 1996), there are a few reflections pieces out and about. My colleague Chris Geidner has a wonderful series about it over at Metro Weekly I encourage you all to read.

I was flipping through Eric Marcus’ Making Gay History last night, also a wonderful book, about it, and as we reflect on the anniversary and think about how to overcome today’s obstacles, I’ll be hand-typing a few excerpts here the rest of the week to spur the dialogue. The entire book is composed as a series of interviews, using excerpts of them chronologically through the history of the movement, and some of the perspectives and stories from people like Al Gore, Elizabeth Birch, Larry Kramer, Ellen DeGeneres, Kevin Jennings, Randy Shilts, and others are fascinating to read. Sometimes reading through history and the situation can help us learn and think more clearly about the obstacles that remain today.

Today’s is from Elizabeth Birch, who ran the Human Rights Campaign from 1995-2004. Birch:

To understand what happened in 1996, you have to go back to 1990 and the events that ignited this battle over gay marriage in the first place. Some brave, maverick gay couples in Hawaii tried to get marriage licenses. It was very organic, very grassroots. Eventually, Lambda Legal Defense took on the case. But what needed to have happened back in the early 1990s was a parallel, systematic process to educate people in order to create the political soil in which the public policy could grow. And that didn’t happen.

So while the case in Hawaii is moving along — we all knew that no material isssues in this case were going to be resolved until maybe ’95 or ’99 — we’re coming up to the 1996 elections. We knew that the Republicans were looking for any gay issue that could embarrass the president and drive a wedge between the Democrats and their gay base. They test as much as we do and what their polling told them was that out of the ten major issue areas, from hate crimes to families to AIDS to whatever, the only one that tested really badly was gay marriage.


The legislation got packaged up and delivered out in time for the 1996 election. And the only real strategic error they made was picking Congressman Bob Barr from Georgia as their champion; he had been married three times. So that led to the only happy moment in this battle for me. Bob Barr and I were on the Newshour on PBS. We were debating the merits of the bill and I said, “You know, there’s some confusion out there, Congressman Barr. Which marriage are you defending? Your first? Your second? Or your third?” The cameraman started laughing so hard that I thought the camera was shaking.

Dick Morris, who was President Clinton’s chief political strategist at hte time, said to the president, “You need to take this out of play and you need to announce now that you’ll sign it.” So Bill Clinton announced that if the Defense of Marriage Act reached his desk, he’d sign it. I was absolutely enraged.

I had the chance to passionately make a case to Vice President Gore that Part “A” of the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional because it violated the Constitution’s Full Faith and Credit clause, which requires that official acts and proceedings of each state be recognized by the other states. I was making a very Republican argument.

I also said that I thought that when the president was ninety years old and looked back he would be proud of having stood on the right side of history.


It didn’t happen with “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” The president could have simply issued the executive order banning discrimination in the military. He would have acted decisively and been done with it. Yes, Congress would have overturned it, but again, he would have been on the right side of history. And with the Defense of Marriage Act I thought he was secure enough in the election cycle to withstand the test of acting decisively. It would have been magnificent if he had simply vetoed it, said it was about discrimination, not about marriage.

Vice President Gore was very, very moved by what I said. He is an extremely good man and cares a great deal about our community. He said, “I will take it up with the president.” And I’m sure he did, but the president signed the bill into law in the middle of the night on September 21, 1996.

The “parallel, systemic education process” is certainly something that is not always there for us.

Tomorrow’s excerpt will include what Al Gore did to take it up with the president and what he thought about the political situation.


  • 1. karen in kalifornia  |  May 10, 2011 at 3:00 am

    Sad indeed.

  • 2. peterplumber  |  May 10, 2011 at 3:24 am

    I remember the "Family Values" campaign the repug's were running back in those days. I also remember Don't Panic coming out with a tee shirt that said, "Hate is NOT a family value"

    But the whole "Family Value" thing has stuck with the Repug's since then.

  • 3. Kathleen  |  May 10, 2011 at 3:46 am

    UPDATE: LCR v. USA (DADT case)

    Log Cabin Republicans ask the 9th Circuit to lift the stay of the District Court injunction, or in the alternative expedite the appeal.

    If the motion to lift the stay is granted, it would mean that there would be an injunction against enforcing DADT.

  • 4. Kathleen  |  May 10, 2011 at 3:49 am

    Also of interest in the LCR motion is their argument that the case will not be mooted by certification of DADT repeal. Not sure how strong an argument that is, but interesting all the same.

  • 5. Nyx  |  May 10, 2011 at 4:23 am

    @Kathleen (#4)

    Even if certification takes place, some republicans say they are going to push for a return of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Is this threat enough to prevent the issue from becoming moot?

  • 6. Maggie4NoH8  |  May 10, 2011 at 4:30 am

    @ anybody who will listen

    HOW can this be legal? Aren't there laws (I've given up on NOM being ethical) that are violated by this???

  • 7. Kathleen  |  May 10, 2011 at 4:33 am

    @Nyx(5), I really don't know. I wouldn't think it would be enough to keep the case alive, but I don't have specific examples at hand that clarify. There might be other legal types around that can provide more of an answer. And here's hoping the Court will issue an opinion to accompany their decision on this motion and not just respond with a one or two sentence order.

  • 8. AnonyGrl  |  May 10, 2011 at 4:57 am

    @ Maggie4NoH8

    I think it skirts legality, actually, since NOM is not a lobbying organization. They are allowed to do a certain amount of candidate support, in certain specific ways, and I don't THINK the rules include that they are not allowed to advertise their attempted vote buying… but they are limited by strict percentage as to how much of their budget can go to direct support of candidates.

    Of course, the way they get around that is to produce their own commercials that are NOT endorsed by or associated with any particular candidate, saying "Marriage is an important issue, and Candidate X agrees. Candidate Y is an evil bastard who doesn't. When you vote, vote for Traditional Marriage or the icky gays will come for your children!" and that is legal. That seems to count as support of an ISSUE, not a candidate.

    The rules are unclear, quite varied by state, and not well enforced anywhere, which is how they get away with it.

    I propose the following:

    (Commercial opens with a picture of NOM's blog, with the actual headlines about the million dollars… then with shots of the actual commercials NOM has produced in that state, showing Candidate X, and then highlighting his voting record on equality.)

    Voice over: There are some things you should know as you go to the polls… In your state, the National Organization for Marriage, a group that claims it is not a lobbying organization, is spending (fill in the blank) thousands of dollars on campaigning for Candidate X, who has voted to discriminate against families who just want equality.

    (Clip of any good "scare tactic" commercial they are using, for instance "Mommy, can two boys get married?")

    Voice over continues: NOM is an out of state organization that consistantly flouts election laws, and has BOUGHT Candidate X's vote and is paying him off by pushing commercials with ridiculous scare tactics that lie about same sex couples, about what children are being taught in schools, and lie about innocent families, your friends and neighbors, who are being hurt every day by discrimination and bigotry.

    (Shots of happy families, both opposite and same sex couples, especially neighborhood shots, families talking over the back fence, watching their children playing together, etc.)

    Voice over continues: Every day, people are coming to realize that the doom and gloom threats of the destruction of "traditional marriage" and the really insane claims that somehow your children are being recruited are just that, insane and ridiculous. People all over this country are realizing that equality is important for everyone, because as Americans, it is what we stand for. And they are recognizing the ugly, hurtful, manipulative tactics of the fear mongers who are buying votes and threatening judges and pushing discriminatory legislation for what they are.

    Say no to hate. Say no to discrimination and bigotry. Say yes to families and children and civil rights. Say yes to marriage equality.

  • 9. Fr. Bill  |  May 10, 2011 at 6:00 am

    I think it is fitting that two of the principal DOMA supporters back then were two Georgia Republicans – Newt Gingrich and Bob Barr – who (at my last count) have six wives between them!

    The issue of finance transparency raised by Maggie4NoH8 is very important. Here in Hawai'i we had to face an opponent to civil unions that was largely funded by religious groups using tax-free and tax-deductible money. Not only do NOM and othere grpoups flount the law but they are fronts for others who also fail to obey the law.

    When Senator Akaka forwarded my complaint to the IRS, I received a reply from the IRS saying in essence that the IRS doesn't investigate compliance with the law and relies on voluntary compliance. The IRS will act only when subsdtantited evidence is given to them. That is difficult when these organizations don't have to report the sources of their income. This needs a lot of sunshine.

  • 10. David Henderson  |  May 10, 2011 at 6:14 am

    Bob Barr, at least, has renounced DOMA. If only Newt would do the same.

  • 11. Don in Texas  |  May 10, 2011 at 6:52 am

    I look forward to reading Randy Shilts' articles. He wrote "And the Band Played On," a chronicle of Ronald Reagan's and the Republicans' totally ignoring the growing AIDS epidemic/crisis in the 1980s. He also wrote "Conduct Unbecoming," a recounting of the horrible treatment of gay and lesbian service members by the U. S. military, especially the NIS, the Navy Investigation Service. Shilts died of AIDS in the mid-990s.

  • 12. Maggie4NoH8  |  May 10, 2011 at 9:30 am

    Thanks AnonyGrl and Fr. Bill…

    Courage Campaign sent out an email asking for votes to start a PAC or not… I voted in the affirmative.

    I want AnonyGrl to write/produce their commercials!


    When I read the NOM Blog, I found it very insulting and offensive. As I have a habit of doing, I asked myself the "other side of the coin" question – what if Courage Campaign was doing the same? Would I still be offended?

    Answer: Yeah, I would be…

    Unrelated – well, sort of (falls under the "those who protest too much" category): One of these days, I wouldn't be surprised to hear about a certain NOM'r having a Larry Craig moment.

  • 13. Adam Bink  |  May 10, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    @Don In Texas, And The Band Played On is one of my favorites, if for unfortunate subject matter. Probably one of the five or six best non-fiction books I've read.

  • 14. Carol Boyk  |  May 11, 2011 at 6:49 am

    @Fr. Bill #9: It is not true that the IRS does not investigate. Under GW Bush, the IRS audited a mainline church in the L.A. area because a guest pastor preached a sermon before the 2004 general election in which he urged the congregation to consider the agendas of the two main candidates and to vote as Jesus would.

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