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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Charlene Strong's Love Story Spells Doom for DOMA

Charlene Strong and Hans Johnson at a screening of the film “for my wife…” .

   After 14 years, a federal law that violates most every principle Americans profess to hold dear is finally coming under sustained political fire. The Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, would be a farce if its corrosive influence on law and lives weren’t so far-reaching.
   One person who has felt that harm firsthand is Charlene Strong [pictured here with Hans Johnson]. Now a human rights commissioner in Washington state, Charlene was denied access to the hospital room of her wife of 10 years following a flash flood that hit their Seattle home in December 2006. A funeral director later snubbed her while she arranged to lay her wife to rest.
Their justification? Not next of kin, she had no legal standing to make decisions. It’s a conclusion DOMA reinforces. Charlene’s story is the subject of the award-winning documentary film “for my wife…”.
   The simple and profoundly upsetting experience–and Charlene’s willingness to recount it–are major reasons why Washington state lawmakers passed comprehensive domestic partnership protection now covering more than 7,000 families. Her face and voice, echoed by her brother and sister-in-law, are also a major reason Washington state voters did, on a much leaner budget in 2009, what Californians didn’t manage to do a year earlier: defend such protection at the polls.
   Many in and outside California criticized the No on 8 campaign in 2008 for failing to show state voters true stories of the injury and injustice that denial of marriage equality inflicts on same-sex couples and their families. Nor was fluency in the diverse languages of the state a feature of what storytelling did occur.
Still, immigrant and people of color groups did some heroic, instructive, and trend-setting work on shoestring budgets. Similar efforts are now a priority for organizations such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and Honor Fund, alongside Equality California.
   In a recent oped in the Seattle Times, Charlene and I go at the craziness and cruelty of DOMA. It selectively ignores loving relationships, licenses and contracts, our lives, and reality. Its repeal needs to be a focus of not only LGBT advocacy, but also our many allies’. That was the message of President Obama at the White House on June 22. He led by example.
   Indeed, it is allies’ stories of anger and bewilderment–seeing same-sex couples protected in one state suddenly stripped of recognition and dignity in another–that may succeed most in undermining the law. Such a groundswell of criticism will be needful, should DOMA crumble in court, so that any lawmaker tempted to revive it will draw deserved scorn.
   Beyond the cruelest, intolerant fringe, there will be no tears for DOMA’s demise. There have been enough already. Public outcry and storytelling about its private havoc only hasten the day its reign of error ends.
   Hans Johnson is president of Progressive Victory, a political consulting firm, and a board vice chair of the Task Force, where Charlene Strong endowed the Kate Fleming Memorial Internship in Movement Storytelling in memory of her late wife.


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