My Adolescent Medicine colleagues and I were thrilled to see Section 3 of DOMA overturned by the Supreme Court. 20 years ago, when I was a teen, gay marriage was not an issue I even considered; it seemed ridiculous that our society would ever accept such a thing. In 2003, Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, and over the next 10 years, many states (including ours) followed suit.
However, just because a state considered a same-sex marriage legally binding, didn’t mean that recognition carried over to the federal government. Section 3 of DOMA forbade same-sex couples from receiving the federal benefits of marriage, and there are many. By overturning Section 3 of DOMA, not only do all couples married in states that recognize gay unions receive the full benefits that marriage provides, but it also sends a strong, positive message about where our country is headed on LGBTQ rights.
Federal recognition of marriage goes beyond the tangible benefits. The repeal of DOMA Section 3 signals a key change in our country. When the U.S. government decides to stop discriminating based on sexual orientation, it paves the way for LGBTQ rights nationwide.
Why is this important for teens?
Teens spent a lot of time thinking about sex and romance. Adolescence is the beginning of a journey in which a young person finds a partner, or partners. From childhood, we are encouraged to think about our future spouse, and the stories usually end in “they lived happily ever after”.
When we forbid gay marriage, we are telling gay teens that the love they will feel is not as valid as other love. That the families they form will not be fully recognized families. That they are different, and that difference renders them and their emotions inferior to that of someone who is attracted to the opposite sex. That they don’t deserve the same rights as their heterosexual peers, no matter how loving, stable, and strong their relationships are.
Especially for teens who do not live in accepting environments, this can lead to feelings of isolation, exclusion, and pessimism. In a population with a high risk of suicide, this is not the message we want to send. We want all teens to look forward to a fulfilling romantic partnership (or partnerships) that is supported by their community.
What’s more, by denying rights to same-sex couples, we societally reinforce any homophobia that teens may feel or exhibit towards their peers. When we want to teach teens that bullying and prejudice are not okay, having prejudice encoded in federal law is not a good way to start.
Another population the DOMA repeal affects is teens who have same-sex parents. Growing up, they see them denied the rights afforded to opposite-sex parents. This can be frustrating and alienating, although it has also led to the development of some amazing allies in the fight for gay rights.
The DOMA repeal is wonderful news for anyone who cares about LGBTQ teens, and teens from LGBTQ families. But this is hardly the end of the struggle; there is plenty of work to be done. It is still legal to fire someone from their job because of their sexual orientation in 29 states (and 34 due to gender identity). In many states, same-sex couples cannot adopt children. The legal challenges faced by transgender individuals are overwhelming. It’s important that every advocate for teens stays committed to ensuring that they grow into adults in a society free of homophobia, transphobia, and prejudice.