Hofstra Horizons Research

After DOMA: Same-Sex Couples and the Shifting Road to Equality

Alicia Bosley, PhD, Assistant Professor of Counseling and Mental Health Professions, Hofstra University
Marriage and Family Therapy Program

Abstract

Same-sex couples are affected by the social and political climates in which they live, as these create the difference between acceptance and legalization, and discrimination and prohibition, of their relationships. Following the June 26, 2013, ruling that Section Three of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage as between a man and a woman, was unconstitutional, same-sex couples were legally supported and legitimized for the first time. On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court further ruled that states cannot keep same-sex couples from marrying and must recognize their unions. Although these rulings represented significant steps in ensuring marriage equality, they were followed by countermovements opposing same-sex marriage. Several states developed bans on same-sex marriage within their state constitutions following the 2013 repeal; others contested the 2015 ruling. Additionally, social and political debates continued, creating a contentious climate and heightened scrutiny of same-sex couples.

This paper will present a glimpse into the unique and fleeting time period during which the fight for marriage equality reached its peak and ultimately its goal, through the words of self-identified LGBTQ+ individuals and members of same-sex relationships. The results of this study may assist professionals working with same-sex couples by increasing comprehension of the impacts of these rulings and sociopolitical contexts. In turn, professionals may work more capably and sensitively with same-sex couples, with a clearer contextual understanding of their lives and relationships in our current sociopolitical climate.

Keywords: Defense of Marriage Act, LGBTQ+, marriage equality, same-sex marriage

Introduction

On June 26, 2013, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Section Three of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage as between a man and a woman, was unconstitutional (Freedom to Marry, 2013; Human Rights Campaign, 2013; Reilly & Siddiqui, 2013). Under DOMA, married gay and lesbian couples were denied important protections and rights, such as Social Security benefits, family and medical leave, the ability to pool resources without heightened taxation, military family benefits, and hospital visitation rights (Andryszewski, 2008; Freedom to Marry, 2013; GLAAD, 2013; Goldberg, 2009; Mathy & Lehmann, 2004). Thus, the Supreme Court’s decision upheld that all married couples deserve equal treatment and respect under the law, and marked the end of the denial of over 1,100 federal protections and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples (Drescher, 2012; Freedom to Marry, 2013; Human Rights Campaign, 2013; Killian, 2010; Mathy, Kerr, & Lehmann, 2004; Pelts, 2014; Sterngass, 2012). These privileges of legal married status had previously been available to all other married people, and thus the repeal of Section Three of DOMA was a major victory for marriage equality in the United States (Barnes, 2013; Freedom to Marry, 2013; GLAAD, 2013; Human Rights Campaign, 2013; Reilly & Siddiqui, 2013).

Method

In order to best understand the impacts of the DOMA repeal on same-sex couples, a mixed-method, convergent parallel design was utilized to attain complementary data on the topic (Morse, 1994). A data validation variant was used in order to allow the qualitative data to corroborate and elaborate upon the results of the quantitative data, as discussed by Creswell and Plano Clark (2011). Following Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval, participants were recruited online via a social media site (Facebook); ads were placed on the Facebook pages of the Human Rights Campaign and PFLAG chapters, with permission obtained before posting. Interested participants followed a link to a 25-question survey composed of open- and closed-ended questions. Survey methodology was used to obtain responses from people across the country, providing a more representative sample of the larger national LGBTQ+ population than would be feasible via in-person interviewing methods. Twenty-six participants meeting study criteria (over the age of 18; residing in the United States, District of Columbia, or Puerto Rico; and self-identifying as being in a same-sex relationship for at least one year) participated in the survey (see Table 1).

Table 1: Participant Demographics

Variables

n

%

Variables

n

%

Age Range

Gender

26-35

11

42.31

Male

18

69.23

36-45

5

19.23

Female

7

26.92

46-55

7

26.92

Transgender

1

3.85

56-65

2

7.69

Total

26

100

66-75

1

3.85

Total

26

100

Sexual Orientation

Ethnicity

Gay

19

73.08

African American

1

3.85

Lesbian

5

19.23

Asian American

1

3.85

Bisexual

1

3.85

Caucasian

20

76.92

Queer

1

3.85

Hispanic or Latino

2

7.69

Total

26

100

Native American

1

3.85

Mixed Race

1

3.85

Total

26

100

State of Residence

Arizona

1

3.85

North Carolina

2

7.69

Colorado

6

23.08

Oregon

1

3.85

Connecticut

1

3.85

Texas

2

7.69

Florida

3

11.54

Washington

2

7.69

Michigan

1

3.85

Wisconsin

5

19.23

New York

2

7.69

Total

26

100

Committed Relationship Status*

Same-gender partner

Yes

26

100

Yes

25

96.15

No

0

0

No**

1

3.85

Total

26

100

Total

26

100

Level of Involvement in LGBTQ+ Rights Advocacy

Not at all active

4

15.38

Not very active

8

30.77

Somewhat active

11

42.31

Very active

2

7.69

Extremely active

1

3.85

Total

26

100

*In a committed relationship for at least one year. For the purposes of this study, defined as romantically and emotionally committed to one another.

**This participant was in two relationships; one was a male-female relationship and the other was male-male. As the participant was involved in a same-sex relationship, he was included in the survey despite answeriz ng “no” to this question.

Survey responses were analyzed using phenomenological analysis for the qualitative portion and a one-way ANOVA with a Tukey post-hoc test for the quantitative portion. Through the qualitative methodology, participants were asked to describe their experiences related to the repeal to develop an understanding of participants’ lived experiences following the repeal. Through the quantitative paradigm utilized in this study, the relationship between state of residence (and local marriage laws) and perceptions of Section Three’s repeal was sought and assessed. Following data collection, content areas present in both data sets were identified and transferred as needed to facilitate relating the two data types.

In addition to the themes found across all respondents, several themes specific to geographic legal groups emerged. Respondents were divided into three categories:
1) Respondents living in states with constitutional bans (Arizona, North Carolina)
2) Respondents living in states without full legal marriage but some rights (Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Texas, and Wisconsin)
3) Respondents living in states with legal same-sex marriage (Connecticut,  New York, Oregon, and Washington)

Although most differences were not statistically significant quantitatively, distinct themes within groups and differences between groups were identified and were similar in both the qualitative and quantitative portions of the analysis. See Figures 1-6 for visual representations of state differences.

Results

Several experiences regarding the Section Three repeal were discussed by multiple participants. These experiences provide a glimpse into
the lived experience of respondents and reveal the essence of this event. Four primary themes emerged from the responses: (1) marry or not?,
(2) support or not?, (3) impact or not?, and (4) progress or not?

Marry or not?

As DOMA and its Section Three both concern the definition of legal marriage in the United States, it is perhaps unsurprising that a central theme arising from participants was that involving marriage and their related decisions, or inability to make decisions. Several people indicated the importance of the repeal in giving them the ability to get married; one respondent stated, “We are [now] legally married in Washington because we were registered domestic partners. Our partnership turned into marriage. We are very happy.” However, this decision was not as simple for other participants: As one man explained, “For us, getting married might not be a good thing. One of us lives with AIDS, and being married would screw up his needs-based medical care.” Other respondents indicated that they were simply not ready. One man living in Washington explained, “We have only been together for one and a half years – not yet ready to commit to a lifetime together. That said, we are very happy together and both believe marriage and children are possibilities for the future.”

Support or not?

Only six of the 26 respondents reported legal support following the repeal, primarily in the form of sharing property and tax benefits. This low percentage could be seen as an indication of the newness of the extension of legal benefits to same-sex couples, the limited number of LGBTQ+ people who actually have access to these benefits, and work still needed to extend benefits to same-sex couples. Those who had received benefits indicated that these were very helpful. A male respondent from Wisconsin expressed, “Being able to share health insurance when we marry is huge. It will give us so much more flexibility and, honestly, a better, fairer quality of life.”

Further, reported levels of support from families, friends, and community members varied greatly. Many respondents indicated they had received positive social backing, others reported mixed support, and a few reported continued discrimination and a lack of social support. Responses hinted at the importance of social support; as a woman in Colorado revealed: “My community is very open and accepting and I feel blessed to have moved here.” Conversely, some reported social discrimination following the repeal. A Colorado man reported, “I do feel that the debate has caused some of the community who oppose marriage equality to increase their level of opposition. Only in
the past few years have I really felt strongly discriminated against …
prior to the current climate of debate about marriage equality they just pretty much left me alone.”

Impact or not?

A major issue discussed by respondents was the impact of the repeal and related social responses on their individual and relationship well-being and functioning. Generally, participants felt that the repeal had positive effects on themselves and their relationships, but a few spoke of ways that it increased pressure on them.

One of the most commonly reported impacts was that of increased legal and social support benefiting respondents’ couple relationships. A Wisconsin man wrote that the responses of family and friends had been “nearly 100% positive and supportive. Their support and love has helped our relationship grow and mature.” Another Wisconsin resident wrote, “I feel we have more of an opportunity for long-term success as a couple by having some federal (and maybe state) recognition if we get married.” Respondents also spoke of feeling safer following the repeal. A Wisconsin man explained, “I’m happy that opinions are changing; it makes me feel safer, physically and emotionally.” Unfortunately, not all effects were positive. Several respondents reported feeling increased pressure to get married. For example, a Wisconsin man felt that the repeal had “… actually made [our relationship status] a bit more insecure. We do not live together, and it’s caused questions of commitment to come up. Now that we can get married in certain states, will we? If not, what is our relationship all about and where is it leading?”

Although many respondents felt their relationships had been impacted by the repeal, others felt unaffected. A Colorado woman explained, “Our relationship is rock solid. Increased legal and/or social recognition is just the icing on the cake. We deserve equality and are glad it is happening but did not expect to see it in my lifetime.”

Progress or not?

In the final category, participants gave their overall opinions of the repeal. Views of the repeal were solidly positive, labeling the repeal as a major event in the movement for LGBTQ+ rights and the morally right decision. Many participants felt that the repeal was an important, even historic, event. One man from New York elaborated, “It is a major domino falling that signifies the beginning of the downfall to marriage inequality throughout the country.” Another man from Colorado went beyond the repeal’s immediate implications: “I feel the repeal has meaning far beyond marriage and deals more with basic human dignity.”

Discussion

In combining the results of the qualitative and quantitative analysis, several patterns in participants’ responses were elucidated. First, both qualitative and quantitative results revealed that overall, participants across groups viewed the Section Three repeal as a positive and important event. Furthermore, participants in all states reported beliefs that the repeal would be helpful in providing same-sex couples with access to the privileges and benefits of marriage, as well as supporting the marriage equality movement. Finally, very few participants in any group had received any benefits following the repeal, indicating that more must be done to attain full marriage equality in the United States.

In addition, results highlighted important differences between groups. Despite minimal findings of statistical significance between groups, both qualitative and quantitative results indicated that participants in states with bans on same-sex marriage felt that both legal status and social opinion had more impact on their couple relationships than did participants in other states. Further, although few participants in any group reported receiving benefits following the repeal, based on their written commentary to the questions, participants in states with bans on same-sex marriage reported the fewest received benefits, and also indicated that these benefits were more helpful to them than did other groups. This finding highlights an important discrepancy between need and actual support provided to participants in states with bans.

The narratives of this study indicate that the repeal was an important event for LGBTQ+ rights, with far-reaching implications for marriage and human rights within the United States. However, these narratives also reveal that the fight for marriage equality was not over; there was still much to be done. The subsequent Supreme Court ruling on June 26, 2015, struck down Section Two of DOMA and thus established nationwide marriage equality, regardless of previous state laws (Liptak, 2015). However, many states responded to the 2013 and 2015 repeals by introducing bills allowing religious exemptions for providing service to LGBTQ+ clients, restricting adoption by same-sex couples, and allowing for the refusal to grant marriage licenses (ACLU.org, 2017; Blinder & Perez-Pena, 2015; Harris, 2017; Pizer, 2016). Follow-up research would be helpful in assessing the ongoing state of same-sex couples. This may be especially pertinent considering the rarity of participants in this study receiving benefits they were purported to get post-repeal. According to phenomenological theory, the truth of history lies in the experiences of those most intimately connected to the event. It is therefore our role as couple and family researchers and therapists to listen and to assist where we are able.

References

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Blinder, A., & Perez-Pena, R. (2015, September 1). Kentucky clerk denies same-sex marriage licenses, defying court. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/02/us/same-sex-marriage-kentucky-kim-davis.html

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