Yesterday, President Joe Biden signed into law the Respect for Marriage Act, effectively repealing and replacing the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) with federal protections fortifying same-sex and interracial marriage. Even as we understand and continue advocacy to address the limitations of the legislation, NASPA recognizes the importance of the bipartisan support for this bill, given a climate of political polarization and an increase in anti-LGBTQ and anti-Critical Race Theory legislation at the state level.
NASPA recognizes the significance that federal recognition of same-sex and interracial marriage has for the higher education community, and queer and trans people in particular. Heightened support for the Respect for Marriage Act shows a potential shift in Congress toward inscribing protections for queer and trans individuals into federal law. NASPA has long supported the expansion of civil rights laws to queer and trans people through measures such as the Equality Act and hopes that enactment of the Respect for Marriage Act signals a step toward more meaningful legislation to come.
We recognize that passage of the Respect for Marriage Act comes just weeks after the mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs. This bill does not address the hate and ignorance that underpin the heterosexism and transphobia (among other forms of marginalization) embedded in systems that regulate education, healthcare, religion, employment, family, and more. In fact, the final version of the legislation includes provisions that allow heterosexism and transphobia to go unchecked.
The Respect for Marriage Act vote and enactment carry meaningful symbolic and material impact—and the bill also falls short of full federal protection. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) defined “marriage” as between a man and a woman and “spouse” as “only a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife.” The Respect for Marriage Act recognizes marriage between two people regardless of their sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin. The new law safeguards protections granted through court decisions in United States v. Windsor (2013) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) that have constitutionally affirmed same-sex marriage, required interstate recognition of marriages, and permitted same-sex couples to access federal safety nets such as spousal disability, veteran, or Social Security benefits.
Unfortunately the Respect for Marriage Act does little to expand the existing benefits that same-sex couples can access. It also does not require states to allow same-sex couples to marry, only that states must recognize any marriage that was legal in the state where it was performed. The policy landscape for queer and trans individuals remains fraught, and NASPA and the Gender and Sexuality Knowledge Community invite members to an interactive open forum that will focus on policy literacy and action planning. This event will be hosted in January when many state legislative sessions begin. Information about this virtual event will be shared at a later date. In the meantime, we invite you to download NASPA’s January 2022 issue brief, “Current U.S. State Policy Landscape Impacting Transgender and Gender Non-Binary College Students.”