The issue of same-sex marriage has been a highly visible one in America in recent years. In 1996, former President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, DOMA, into law. DOMA is a federal law that legally allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages that had been performed in other states. DOMA also identified a “spouse” as a member of a heterosexual relationship legally recognized as a marriage, and thus restricted the benefits same-sex partners, in those states that allow same-sex marriages, receive once they are married.
Without these benefits, same-sex married couples are denied the right to a certain measure of freedom and the pursuit of happiness. There have been many cases of people not being able to visit their dying same-sex spouse in the hospital because they are not legally recognized as a “spouse.” In many states same-sex couples are not legally allowed to adopt children, and there are restrictions that have caused many children to be placed into foster care after the death of the other parent, instead of being allowed to live with their surviving parent who may have raised them for their entire life, simply by virtue of the fact that both parents were of the same sex. Marriage quite simply has not held the same meaning and privileges for same-sex couples as for heterosexual couples, and this means that up to 4 percent of Americans, or 9 million people nationwide, are being denied the right to participate in an institution that many consider to be a fundamental right.
However, there have been steps forward in relation to marriage equality in recent years. DOMA was ruled unconstitutional in 2013 and repealed. Since then, many states have begun to legally recognize same-sex unions and now confer the legal privileges of marriage on same-sex married couples. This is progress, certainly, but the intense focus we have had on marriage equality has largely covered up and ignored other issues the LGBTQ+ community faces. Legal rights are only effective if they can be protected and enforced, and if the prevailing attitude towards the group these laws are supposed to protect remains negative then the laws are not likely to be enforced in a real-life manner consistent with the ideal, and therefore largely symbolic, meaning these rights hold on paper. It is not enough to confer the right to marry on us in a legal manner if the attitudes – namely, homophobia and transphobia – that denied us our rights in the first place are still in play. Marriage inequality is a problem, yes, but the homophobia and transphobia at its core directly endanger the lives of LGBTQ+ individuals. Until LGBTQ+ people cease being murdered in the streets due to their sexual orientation and gender identity, solving issues such as marriage equality boils down to nothing more than treating a symptom. The best way to resolve these issues is to work at curing the source of these problems, and the effects associated with it will begin to resolve themselves as attitudes change for the better.