The Impact of the Supreme Court’s Rulings on Us

Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on two cases about equality of marriage for same-sex couples. Many friends have asked how those rulings will impact Tawn and me, especially the ruling in United States vs. Windsor, which found Part 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional.

Tawn and I were married in Iowa almost four years ago and have lived in Thailand for more than seven years. We chose to live here for a variety of reasons, the biggest of which was that there was no practicable way for him to stay in the United States after completing his master’s degree.

The first state to provide same-sex marriage was Massachusetts in late 2003, so we had the option of getting married. But because of DOMA, the federal government would not recognize our marriage.

This is because immigration is one of the more than 1,100 federal statutes that use marital status to determine rights, benefits, and privileges. Because of DOMA, the federal government would not recognize our marriage so I could not sponsor Tawn’s immigration as my spouse.

Impact of the DOMA Ruling

Now that Part 3 of DOMA has been ruled unconstitutional (Part 2, which excuses states from having to recognize same-sex marriages that are conducted in other states, still stands), the door is open for me to sponsor Tawn, should we want to move back to the United States.

This would make immigration relatively painless and he could be in the United States and able to work within about 90 days. Spouse visas are expedited and are not subject to country-based quotas like other types of immigration visas.

When are we moving back to the United States? The answer is, no time soon. There were many secondary reasons for moving to Thailand and now that Tawn has a one-year old fashion design business and my US-based employer severed my employment after I declined their request to relocate to Atlanta, there is greater gravity holding us in Thailand. 

We will probably return to the United States some day, perhaps splitting our time between the two countries. But right now, it is enough to know that we have the right to return, when we choose to do so.


Posing with my grandparents in Kansas City this spring.

Impact of the Proposition 8 Ruling

With regards to the second Supreme Court ruling, on the case of Hollingsworth vs. Perry, this case does not directly affect us. The case asked whether California’s Proposition 8, which halted same-sex marriage, was constitutional.

The Supreme Court determined that the Proposition 8 supporters did not have the legal standing to appeal the lower court’s decision when the state government declined to appeal the case. This effectively resulted in Proposition 8 being invalidated and same-sex marriages resumed in California Friday afternoon.

The only effect that this case would have on us is if we moved back to California. It would ensure that our marriage, performed outside of California, would be recognized by the state government.

I want to give a quick thank you to all of the friends and family members who supported us and the larger fight for marriage equality. I especially want to thank our straight allies, people who proudly spoke up for equality even though it wasn’t directly their fight.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “None of us are free until all of us are free.”

 

About Fat Cats and Corporations

In the July 9 issue of The Economist magazine, I read this interesting article about why it is so difficult to stir up public sentiment in the United States against the wealthy.  For example, why do so many people get riled up about the idea of eliminating the tax cuts for the wealthiest people, when we’re talking about 2% of the population who are radically better off than the other 98% of the population?

One paragraph in particular caught my attention:

“The point here is only that Americans do not seem to mind about the widening inequality of income and wealth as much as you might expect them to in current circumstances. By and large, they have preferred opportunity to leveling; equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome.  The trouble with this is that America is a long way from providing equal opportunity.”

I continue to wonder why it is that when you talk to people individually, they are very much in favor of creating truly equal opportunity.  Somehow, though, en masse, they become reverse Robin Hoods who support the taking from the poor and giving to the rich.  Even more confusing when it is against their own best interest to do so.

Rising Inequality – Why Don’t We Care?

There’s an interesting “Room for Debate” series in the NY Times titled “Rising Wealth Inequality – Should we Care?“.   The series was sparked by an intriguing survey by Michael Norton and Dan Ariely that found that Americans generally estimate that wealth distribution is far more equal than it actually is and, if given a choice, they would select an even more equitable distribution as being the ideal scenario.  The graph below shows the results of the survey.

Income Distribution 

Of course there will always be a uneven distribution of wealth, and that in and of itself is not a bad thing.  Systems such as communism and socialism have proven to be an ineffective way of raising standards of living, whereas capitalism has done a pretty good job on the whole.  But are the wealthiest 1% or 10% of our nation (or of any nation) actually contributing to their society in a manner proportionate with their wealth?  Are they wealthy because they’re reaping the rewards of their hard work, or is it a matter of inheritance, loopholes, and offshore accounts?

It seems that the economic theory known as “trickle-down economics” – in which you give the wealthy more of their money through a lowering of taxes in the belief that they will spend more, thus fueling economic growth – has largely been proven to be bogus.  The wealthy spend a proportionately smaller share of their income than do people further down the socioeconomic ladder.  The rest goes into investments.

What most confuses me is why so many people who are middle class or lower, are against raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy.  They seem to hold a belief that they may one day be in that top few percent and have to pay that “too high” a marginal tax rate, when in reality their only realistic chance of becoming a millionaire, let alone a billionaire, is to win the lottery.  Heck, even Warren Buffet, one of the nation’s wealthiest men, says he needs to be paying a higher tax rate.

The debate series in the NY Times lays out the different perspectives, but I’m curious to hear yours:

Why don’t people seem to care about rising inequality?  Is the rising inequality something we should be concerned about?  Is that lack of caring about it also something we should be concerned about?

 

Thoughts After an Emergency Room Visit

Wednesday evening, Tawn called me.  He had just left dinner with a friend and a severe rash had appeared on his torso, so he decided to head directly for the emergency room.  He asked me to meet him there.

In the end, the doctor was able to treat the rash and suspects it may be a previously unrecognized food allergy.  Tawn is fine.  But while I was sitting in the emergency room, I realized that we’ve got to get serious about completing powers of attorney for each other as well as our wills.  Had a hospital stay been necessary or decisions of medical care been required, our marriage would not be recognized and we could not make decisions on behalf of the other person.

One more of those little details, little insults almost, that remind me on a regular basis how far we have left to go to be treated equally.

At the end of January, the Iowa House passed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.  Thankfully, the Iowa Senate is Democrat-controlled and is unlikely to pass the bill, but in the state where Tawn and I were married in August 2009, our legal right to marriage is under attack. 

Not a week later, the Iowa House started kicking around the idea of a bill that would open the door for businesses, organizations, and individuals to discriminate against same-sex couples on religious grounds. But this legislation would go far beyond gays and lesbians, opening the door for discrimination against any married couples, including interfaith and interracial couples!  Thankfully, enough furor was kicked up that the lead sponsor of the bill tabled it, citing concerns raised about the bill.

Forgive me if sometimes I seem a little defensive about my rights.

rollingstoneuganda Kato

At the same time, perspective is needed.  On January 26th, gay Ugandan human rights activist David Kato was brutally murdered.  Uganda is a country where the level of homophobia and hatred is extreme.  Homosexual acts are punishable with up to 14 years of imprisonment and members of the government have recently lobbied to have the punishment increased to the death penalty in some cases.  While the Ugandan supreme court has ruled that homosexuals have a right to privacy, that didn’t stop one major newspaper from publishing pictures of several people including Mr. Kato and saying they were gay, along with the headline “Hang them!” 

Keeping all this in mind helps give me more appreciation for what rights I do have, or at least for where I am in the world.  Being beaten to death for being gay is an unlikely outcome in my life. 

But don’t think for a minute I’m going to wave that around like some flag of victory.  I still expect equality.

What is a cause you really believe in? What causes do you support?

There are many causes that are important to me, especially those related to education and opportunity for young people.  But the cause that speaks most closely to me is immigration equality.  A citizen of the United States can marry a foreign national of the opposite sex and sponsor his or her immigration to the US and eventual citizenship.  In fact, a citizen of the United States can sponsor the visa for his or her unmarried partner of the opposite sex so long as they get married within six months of moving to the US.  But because of the federal government’s “Defense of Marriage Act“, I cannot sponsor Tawn for immigration to the US even though we have been together more than a decade and been legally married in a US state more than a year.

Immigration Equality

The sad thing is, most American citizens (including gay ones) are not aware of this.  Many people, both conservative and liberal, to whom I’m explained this nuance of the law find it disturbing because it goes against Americans’ general sense of fair play: laws should be consistent for all citizens.  But for me, because I’m gay, there’s a double standard.  Immigration laws do not afford me the same rights and privileges as those of my married and even unmarried heterosexual fellow citizens.
   

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Response to the Prop 8 Ruling: It’s a Red Herring

Pardon me while I briefly interrupt the series about making friends as an expat to provide this commentary and feedback on today’s ruling by the California Supreme Court, upholding Proposition 8, which defines marraige as “between one man and one woman”.

07 While my initial reaction to today’s California Supreme Court ruling upholding Proposition 8 was one of disappointment, I really am not that worked up over it, for two reasons:

 

First, the court was ruling on whether the ballot initiative process was a legal way to change the constitution.  For better or for worse, the supporters of Prop 8 did follow the process.  The problem here is less one of equality and more one of California having a dysfunctional ballot initiative process.  As a Californian for more than thirty years, I’ll be the first to say that the initiative process has caused many more problems that it has solved.  So, if you’re upset at the ruling, turn some of that righteous indignation towards changing the state’s way of creating laws.

 

Second, while the word “marriage” is very powerful, same sex couples in California still have all the rights, responsibilities, and privileges of marriage through the state’s civil union process.  So, from a practical standpoint, a couple who gets a civil union tomorrow is afforded all of the same state benefits as couples who have one of the 18,000 same-sex marriages that the court ruled are still valid.

 

The fight over Prop 8, while important, is a red herring.

Here’s the real battle, friends: At the federal level, regardless of whether we have a “marriage” or a “civil union” in any of the fifty states or the District of Columbia, same sex couples do not have ANY federal rights.  There are 1,138 specific federal rights identified by the Government Accounting Office that married couples are afforded, including (most importantly for me and Tawn) immigration rights.

 

The struggle to gain full equal rights will be a long one.  Along that road we will face significant setbacks, obstacles and distractions.  We need to look at things in a broad context at each step of the way, making sure our efforts are focused on the endgame.  While winning back the right to have a “marriage” versus a “civil union” in California is important, and something that I look forward to, in forty of the states we can’t even have the civil union and at the federal level, having either doesn’t matter.  That’s where the real battle lies.

 

Maybe We’ll Get Married in Iowa Instead?

Last year I wrote about Tawn and I planning to get married in California when we returned to visit family over the holidays.  That plan was upset by the voters of California, who passed Proposition 8 thanks largely to the help of a (possibly illegal) injection of funds by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

That said, it looks like we may have another marriage option when we return to Kansas City this summer to see the family: Iowa.

That’s right, restrictions to same-sex marriage have been overturned by the Iowa State Supreme Court and marriages will begin before the end of the month. 

03iowa-600

Does this surprise you as much as it surprises me?  It seems it shouldn’t.  Iowa has a history of being a progressive state.  It was one of the first to allow interracial marriage and women to own property.  It ended segregation shortly after the Civil War.  It was the first state to allow a woman to practice law and it was a leader in school desegregation.  The governor and legislature are Democratic.

Based on the first news reports, those opposed to same-sex marriage aren’t rushing to the “activist judges” defense quite as quickly.  For starters, the court issued a 7-0 ruling in favor of striking down bans on same-sex marriage.  There was no split decision. 

Furthermore, the state constitution requires a lengthy process to be changed: two consecutive legislatures have to pass the amendment and then it has to be approved by voters, too.  That’s at least a two-year process and current Democratic leadership has indicated that they’re not inclined to introduce such an amendment.

The third reason the same-sex marriage opponents probably haven’t done the “activist judges” route is that the court’s decision addresses the role of the court to make this decision, walking step by step through the role of the three branches of government in the State of Iowa.  The full decision, which is interesting reading, can be found here.  Quoting from that decision:

A statute inconsistent with the Iowa Constitution must be declared void, even though it may be supported by strong and deep-seated traditional beliefs and popular opinion. Iowa Const. art. XII, § 1 (providing any law inconsistent with the constitution is void). As Chief Justice John Marshall wrote over two centuries ago, “It is a proposition too plain to be contested, that the constitution controls any legislative act repugnant to it . . . .”  Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 177, 2 L. Ed. 60, 73 (1803).

Like any journey towards equality, this one is a long, slow march.  But today, we’ve taken another step to the point where we look back and ask ourselves, “What was all the fuss over same-sex marriage about?”