Biden signs marriage bill

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Tuesday December 13, 2022
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President Joe Biden signs the Respect for Marriage Act on the South Lawn of the White House during a December 13 ceremony. Photo: Courtesy the White House
President Joe Biden signs the Respect for Marriage Act on the South Lawn of the White House during a December 13 ceremony. Photo: Courtesy the White House

President Joe Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act Tuesday, marking the first significant piece of LGBTQ rights legislation to become law in a decade.

"Today is a good day," Biden said as 5,300 LGBTQ leaders and allies from across the country gathered on the South Lawn of the White House. "Today we celebrate justice for everyone."

The signing ceremony included Vice President Kamala Harris, first lady Jill Biden, and second gentleman Doug Emhoff. Gay Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was in attendance, as were members of Congress.

During her remarks, Harris recalled marrying same-sex couples when she was San Francisco district attorney at City Hall over Valentine's Day weekend in 2004 during the Winter of Love, after then-mayor and now Governor Gavin Newsom ordered city officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. As state attorney general, she returned to City Hall on June 28, 2013, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Proposition 8, the state's same-sex marriage ban, was unconstitutional, to officiate the marriage of Kris Perry and Sandy Stier. The women, with their four sons, were at the White House Tuesday, Harris said.

"Let us think about today, December 13, 2022," Harris said. "Democrats and Republicans finally have protected marriage rights under federal law."

The Respect for Marriage Act was passed by the U.S. Senate on November 29 by a vote of 61-36 and approved on a concurrence vote in the House of Representatives December 8 by a vote of 258-169. Both votes were bipartisan, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported. The House had its first vote on the bill back in July, where it also passed with bipartisan support.

Specifically, the Respect for Marriage Act will repeal the discriminatory "Defense of Marriage Act" that was passed in 1996 but had key provisions struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 (Section 3, U.S. v. Windsor) and 2015 (Section 2, Obergefell v. Hodges). Not only does it require federal recognition of same-sex and interracial marriages nationwide but also mandates states must recognize such unions performed in other states. The act includes protections for religious liberty.

During his remarks, Biden recalled when he first spoke out in favor of marriage equality while serving as former President Barack Obama's vice president. He made the comments on NBC's "Meet the Press" in May 2012.

"Ten years ago on a certain TV show I got into some trouble," he said, referencing the fact that at the time, Obama himself had not publicly endorsed same-sex marriage.

Biden also talked about the importance the Respect for Marriage Act has for interracial couples. "Now ... interracial couples and same-sex couples' marriages are regarded as legal in every state," he said.

Tiffany Woods, a trans mom who's co-chair of the California Democratic Party's LGBTQ Caucus, attended the ceremony.

"What a historic, heartfelt day of respect, recognition, honoring, progress, tears, joy and jubilation and declaration that Love is Love and marriage equality only moves America more closer to freedom! Honored to be among California leaders!" Woods wrote in a Twitter message to the Bay Area Reporter. "My family and so many like mine represent the best of American values of love, commitment, and family and are just as valid and worthy as straight families under the law. I was honored to be invited to attend alongside so many California leaders to represent our beautiful, diverse families and bear witness to the historic signing that so many of us have fought for far too long and for those who did not live long enough to experience marriage equality."

Jonathan Cook, a gay man who's executive director of the Solano Pride Center in Fairfield, also attended the signing ceremony.

"It was inspiring to witness President Biden sign the Respect for Marriage Act at the White House," Cook wrote in a Twitter message. "It is a historic moment for the LGBTQ community on our journey toward full equality. I first began my community advocacy in 2008 after Prop 8 passed in California. This June I married my husband in San Francisco."

Cook said the day was personal for him.

"Yesterday was the culmination of years of hard work organizing, tears at set backs, and a stubborn determination to never stop fighting for full equality," Cook wrote December 14. "While we still need to pass the Equality Act, yesterday was a reason to celebrate. It was an honor to celebrate this victory at the White House at the invitation of the President with so many colleagues and friends from across the country."

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the signing ceremony for the Respect for Marriage Act as President Joe Biden looks on.  

Congressional leaders speak
During the ceremony, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) addressed the crowd.

"For millions of LGBTQ Americans, today is a historic day ... and a relief," Schumer said.

He recounted the challenges in passing the Respect for Marriage Act. "Nothing about this bill was inevitable," he said, adding that in September, the bill's chief authors, including lesbian Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), came to him and requested that a Senate vote be delayed until after the November midterm elections. Schumer said he took a risk and agreed.

"Passing the Respect for Marriage Act over the finish line took persistence, but today it paid off," Schumer said.

For Pelosi, who will remain in Congress next year but will step down from leadership, the day was emotional, she said, recounting that one of the last bills she passed in 2010, at the end of her first stint as speaker, was a repeal of the military's anti-LGBTQ "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." On Tuesday, as she nears the end of her second time as speaker, it was the Respect for Marriage Act that she sent to Biden last week.

Pelosi credited those activists who kept pushing for the bill.

"Each and every one of you can pat yourself on the shoulder," she said. "This would not have happened without advocacy and mobilization at the grassroots level."

However, Pelosi said there is more work to be done. "We won't rest until the Equality Act is signed into law," she said. "America is always about expanding freedom."

The Equality Act would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It passed the House on a bipartisan vote of 224-206 in February 2021. The bill remains stalled in the Senate and will need to be reintroduced in both houses of Congress next year when the new session begins.

It is unlikely to be voted on again by the House, though, when the chamber reverts back to Republican control.

Pelosi commented on how some people might think legislation like the Respect for Marriage Act is easy.

"People say to me 'it's easy for you because you're from San Francisco and people there are tolerant,'" the speaker said. "I say, 'tolerant, that's condescending. This is about respect.'"

"Today is a day for great pride," she added.

The ceremony included performances by LGBTQ ally Cyndi Lauper, gay singer-songwriter Sam Smith, and the Rock Creek Singers of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, D.C.

LGBTQ leaders hailed the president's action.

"This afternoon, President Biden not only ended the discriminatory so-called Defense of Marriage Act, he also enshrined marriage equality into a federal statute for the first time in the history of the United States," stated Imani Rupert-Gordon, executive director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights. "By signing the bipartisan Respect for Marriage Act into law, President Biden once again demonstrated his unwavering commitment to protecting equality for all."

Rupert-Gordon added that NCLR remains dedicated to working with Congress to pass the Equality Act — a goal the president has confirmed is a major commitment for his administration "to ensure that all LGBTQ individuals are able to live their lives free from discrimination no matter who they are or where they live."

Pelosi, in one of her final acts before she hands over the gavel to Republicans next month, praised lawmakers during an enrollment ceremony December 8 after the House vote on the marriage bill. She also mentioned the late Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, the first same-sex couple to be married in San Francisco in 2004, and acknowledged the late gay ambassador Jim Hormel, whose wedding she officiated.

"Today, we stand against an urgent threat" to marriage equality, said Pelosi, because of the Supreme Court's Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision in June that overturned the right to abortion. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion that stated other precedents, like the Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, should be reconsidered.

That was the impetus for the Respect for Marriage Act, lawmakers said, as well as to jettison the Defense of Marriage Act.

"Our history has always been about expanding freedom," Pelosi said, adding that the Respect for Marriage Act "takes DOMA off the books for good."

Biden also mentioned the Dobbs decision in a December 8 statement and reiterated that at the signing ceremony.

"Justice Thomas went further," the president said, in his concurring opinion in Dobbs.

"After the uncertainty caused by the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision, Congress has restored a measure of security to millions of marriages and families," the president stated December 8. "They have also provided hope and dignity to millions of young people across this country who can grow up knowing that their government will recognize and respect the families they build."

Biden also said that his administration would keep fighting for equal rights for LGBTQ people.

"We must stop hate and violence like we saw in Colorado Springs," the president said, referring to the shooting at the LGBTQ nightlife venue Club Q on November 19 in which five people were killed. "We need to fight laws that target trans children and criminalize doctors."

Biden also said that the Equality Act needs to be passed. He called out racism, antisemitism, homophobia, and transphobia.

"They are all connected," Biden said, "but the antidote to hate is love."

Updated, 12/14/22: This story has been updated with additional comments.

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