Man with a mission

Barry Wyatt wants to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act

Barry Wyatt, national field director for Yes on Gay Marriage, handed out information at the Sacramento Pride Festival.

Barry Wyatt, national field director for Yes on Gay Marriage, handed out information at the Sacramento Pride Festival.

Photo By PHOTO by kel munger

It’s not as if gaining marriage equality in California makes everything equal for same-sex couples. We’ve still got DOMA—the Defense of Marriage Act—to contend with, and that’s a big problem.

Signed by former President Bill Clinton in 1996, DOMA is the law that prohibits recognition of gay marriages performed in the states for federal rights. This is the legal underpinning of discrimination against same-sex married couples in federal taxes, Social Security benefits and immigration rights, among others.

It also allows individual states to refuse to recognize marriages performed in other states. DOMA means that, even if you’re one of the 18,000 legally married same-sex couples in California, Nevada or Oregon (or Utah or Idaho) can refuse to recognize your marriage, whether you move to one of those states or are just visiting.

Sacramento-based gay-rights organization Yes on Gay Marriage has one agenda item: to overturn DOMA. SN&R spoke with national field director Barry Wyatt:

What exactly is Yes on Gay Marriage about?

Our agenda is to repeal DOMA. So basically, while Courage Campaign and Marriage Equality USA are focusing here in California on repealing [Proposition] 8, our agenda is about repealing DOMA at the federal level.

DOMA affects gay couples in huge ways that impact beyond marriage. Let’s say you’re one of the 18,000 couples who are still legally married in California. Thanks to DOMA, you still can’t get their marriage rights with Social Security benefits. You still have issues around federal death benefits, inheritance taxes and those sorts of survivorship issues. You still have tax issues at the federal level. And on and on and on …

So we’re about doing anything we can to help with the repeal of Prop. 8, but our main focus is about the federal government. We’re collecting petitions asking the president to take action against DOMA. Our goal is to get a million signatures that we’ll deliver to the president at the national march in October.

[Activist Cleve Jones called for a National Equality March, to be held in Washington, D.C., on October 11, 2009.]

We’re also lobbying our federal legislators. Our national director, Kelley Moran, was in Washington a couple of weeks ago to meet with Brian Bond [President Obama’s liaison with the GLBT community] at the White House, and [Moran] met with a half a dozen U.S. senators.

Right now, in Congress, there are 36 members that voted “no” on DOMA in 1996, so we’ve got a base. It’s not quite 10 percent of the membership, but it’s a base. And in the U.S. Senate, there are nine U.S. senators who voted “no” on DOMA. We have a start, and we hope to go from one Congress member and senator to the next.

This is a grassroots organization, working nationwide for the repeal of DOMA.

Do you think people realize the sweeping effects of DOMA on gay couples, even outside of marriage?

The real crux of the problem is that there’s a huge part of the electorate that doesn’t understand what DOMA does at all. With the activism of marriage equality going state by state, that takes the focus off the federal law.

I think that most same-sex couples don’t recognize how serious the effects of DOMA are until they become married, and then all of a sudden, it’s real. What we’ve found, over the last seven months, is that in addition to moving for the repeal of DOMA, we have to do an education process within our own community so that people understand what this thing is about.

There are 1,135 [federal] rights and responsibilities that are denied to gay couples because of DOMA, and these are things that heterosexual couples have access to immediately upon marrying. It goes well beyond economic issues, but certainly the economic issues are at the core.

The pressure of states legalizing gay marriage helps us to do what we’ve got to do in Washington, no doubt about it. But there’s a lot of education that needs to be done within the community so that they understand what’s at stake here.

The march gives us a target, both as an event and to try and get 1 million signatories as a goal.