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Kunin: What Equality Means

June 26, 2013 will go down in history. The Supreme Court decisions on same sex marriage will give couples in states that have approved same sex marriage, full citizenship under the constitution.

The Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which had denied federal benefits to gay couples, is dead. It was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996. What a different time it was. No state had approved gay marriage. Men and women who openly declared their sexual preferences did so at great risk. Vermont was not to adopt its Civil Unions until the year two thousand. The controversy that followed caused the defeat of half a dozen legislators in the next election.

With the court’s decision on California’s Proposition 8, 13 states will have sanctioned same sex marriage - that amounts to thirty percent of the population. The latest polls show 55% of Americans approve of same sex marriage; 44% oppose.

What is so stunning about the decision is that is was made by a conservative sharply divided court - five to four in each case, but not the same coalition. Supreme Court Justices, it appears, also have gay friends and family members.

The majority opinion on DOMA, written by Justice Kennedy stated that DOMA violates the equal protection clause, an argument similar to one made by the Vermont Supreme Court in 1999.

What do these combined decisions mean to Americans? The opponents will not give up and it is their right to continue to uphold their beliefs. But the assumption that same sex married couples destroy heterosexual marriages has been denied. The court found no evidence for that claim.

The belief that same sex couples have the civil right to be protected by the constitution has been affirmed. These landmark decisions have an impact far beyond the rights of married couples. It tells all gay and lesbian men and women, and their children that they have a legitimate place in society. They do not have to hide, as they once did in deep dark closets. Yes, 37 states have passed laws which prohibit same sex marriage. Some will continue to do so, regardless of the court’s decisions.

But the trajectory is in the other direction, propelled by young people who are more gender blind than many of their elders.

One gay parent put it this way: “Now my children can say to their friends that their parents are married, just like everybody else.”

Like everybody else - that’s what equality means.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont, and author of "The New Feminist Agenda, Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family," published by Chelsea Green.
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