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Feb. 5, 2023

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Washington LGBTQ+ community cheers bill protecting same-sex, interracial unions

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Almost 10 years to the day after same-sex marriage was legally recognized in Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday that would protect same-sex unions.

Across Washington and the country, supporters cheered the approval of the Respect for Marriage Act, which would also safeguard interracial unions by requiring that states recognize legal marriages regardless of “sex, race, ethnicity or national origin.”

The House approval comes after the Senate passed the bipartisan legislation last month. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill promptly.

Proponents described it as an important victory for U.S. families, enshrining same-sex marriages and interracial marriages in federal law. All but one U.S. House member from Washington, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, voted “yes” on the legislation.

“As someone in an interracial marriage and the proud mom of a trans daughter, I am so proud that we have finally codified the right to marry who you love. Period,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat who represents the 7th Congressional District, which includes most of Seattle.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage in 2015, with hundreds of thousands of gay couples married in the years since.

But many saw the right to same-sex marriage threatened after the Supreme Court’s June decision that overturned the federal right to an abortion. In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested the ruling protecting same-sex marriage should also be reconsidered.

The Respect for Marriage Act does not require states to allow same-sex couples to marry. It does require, however, that states recognize all marriages that were legal where they were performed, even if the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that established a right to same-sex unions, is overturned, said Dallas Aguilera Martinez, an attorney for the QLaw Foundation in Seattle.

“With this law, even if a state passes a law to ban same-sex marriage or interracial marriage, that state would be subject to the legislation and have to recognize these marriages from another state,” Martinez said, allowing legally married same-sex couples to, for example, receive tax or health benefits offered to married couples.

“This is important, as people move from state to state to follow family, jobs, and dreams,” Martinez said.

While the legislation provides some redundant protections already offered by Obergefell, “that’s not necessarily a bad thing [when], from what we’ve seen this year, we can’t rely on Supreme Court decisions to remain permanent,” said University of Washington professor of law Peter Nicolas, who specializes in, among other matters, LGBTQ issues.

No cases are pending that call on the Supreme Court to roll back rulings protecting same-sex and interracial marriages.

But after the court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health in June overturning Roe v. Wade, Nicolas said “there’s no doubt going to be a desire to test the limits of where Dobbs can go.”

“If I’m a conservative activist opposed to same-sex marriage, I might look at the Supreme Court and say, ‘This group is my best shot for getting this overturned,’” Nicolas said.

Betty Lau of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, an advocacy group for the Asian American community, said codifying the right to marriage equality is overdue. But she remains worried the Supreme Court will reverse its 2015 decision and is afraid of the potential legal and political fallout.

“I think it’s about time,” Lau said. “LGBTQ folks have been persecuted a long time.”

Alyca and Ethan Amerson of West Seattle have been in an interracial marriage for nearly two decades. Alyca said she is surprised that it has taken lawmakers this long to pass the legislation.

“After we got married I realized that there were still some states with laws on the books that would prevent us from getting married,” she said Thursday. “It seemed shocking to me at the time and here we’re almost 20 years later, still fighting for that same exact protection.”

Since the couple’s wedding in 2003, they had two children — Alyce, 5, and Ember, 4. Alyca called this legislation an even larger victory for younger generations.

“It’s important because I have kids,” she said. “They might want to marry girls, they might want to marry boys, they might want to marry someone of a different ethnicity. They’re biracial themselves, and if these laws weren’t on the books, who knows who they would be allowed to marry.”

Me’Jour Mook, the transgender economic empowerment coordinator at People of Color Against AIDS Network, or POCAAN, an organization providing social services to LGBTQ people and people of color, said Thursday’s vote marks progress.

“If you’re going to end racial discrimination then you have to end same-sex marriage discrimination, those are one in the same,” said Mook, who is a Black transgender woman, noting the effect this has on transgender people. “Trans women and trans folks are getting married … we deserve to sit at the table with everybody else.”

Mook added that solidifying marriage protections helps build a more diverse and inclusive community.

“It gives us hope. It gives us something to look forward to,” Mook said. “It also gives the young generation opportunities to make a stronger impact.”

House approval of the Respect for Marriage Act comes as the LGBTQ+ community faces a rise in anti-transgender and anti-gay legislation in some parts of the United States, as well as exacerbated fears following recent violent attacks.

A shooting at a gay nightclub in Colorado last month left five dead, including two transgender people.

Seattle reported 147 incidents of bias or hate crimes based on sexual orientation in 2021, and 35 such cases based on gender identity. So far this year, 141 hate crimes and incidents of bias related to sexual orientation or gender identity have been reported citywide.

Across the country, a majority of Americans say the legalization of same-sex marriage is good for society, according to an October survey by the Pew Research Center. That’s a dramatic increase from two decades ago, when about twice as many Americans opposed legalizing same-sex marriage compared to those in favor.

Washington voters approved same-sex marriage in 2012, with the first marriage licenses to gay couples issued in King County on Dec. 6, 2012. Over the next three days, more than 600 couples received licenses, according to county officials. The Seattle metro area has one of the highest percentages of same-sex couple households in the United States, according to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau data.

About one in five newlyweds in the Seattle area have a spouse of a different race or ethnicity, according to Pew Research Center data from 2011 to 2015 published in 2017, the most recent years available. Americans almost unanimously approve of marriages between Black people and white people.

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