Nearly 20 years before the Supreme Court would strike down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and make marriage equality the official the law of the land, the late Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) delivered an impassioned speech to his fellow lawmakers, imploring them to vote against the federal law that would prohibit married gay couples from receiving the same federal benefits that straight couples are granted.
“Let me say to the gentleman that when I was growing up in the south during the 1940s and the 1950s, the great majority of the people in that region believed that black people should not be able to enter places of public accommodation, and they felt that black people should not be able to register to vote, and many people felt that was right but that was wrong,” Rep. Lewis said on July 11, 1996, during a Congressional debate on DOMA. “I think as politicians, as elected officials, we should not only follow but we must lead, lead our districts, not put our fingers into the wind to see which way the air is blowing but be leaders.”
“Mr. Chairman, this is a mean bill. It is cruel. This bill seeks to divide our nation, turn Americans against Americans, sew the seeds of fear, hatred and intolerance. Let us remember the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths self-evident that all people are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“This bill is a slap in the face of the Declaration of Independence. It denies gay men and women the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Marriage is a basic human right. You cannot tell people they cannot fall in love. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say when people talked about interracial marriage and I quote, `Races do not fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married.’
“Why do you not want your fellow men and women, your fellow Americans to be happy? Why do you attack them? Why do you want to destroy the love they hold in their hearts? Why do you want to crush their hopes, their dreams, their longings, their aspirations? We are talking about human beings, people like you, people who want to get married, buy a house, and spend their lives with the one they love. They have done no wrong.
“I will not turn my back on another American. I will not oppress my fellow human being. I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Mr. Chairman, I have known racism. I have known bigotry. This bill stinks of the same fear, hatred and intolerance. It should not be called the Defense of Marriage Act. It should be called the defense of mean-spirited bigots act.
“I urge my colleagues to oppose this bill, to have the courage to do what is right. This bill appeals to our worst fears and emotions. It encourages hatred of our fellow Americans for political advantage. Every word, every purpose, every message is wrong. It is not the right thing to do, to divide Americans. We are moving toward the 21st century. Let us come together and create one nation, one people, one family, one house, the American house, the American family, the American nation.
In 2011, Rep. Lewis was asked to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee by its then Chairman, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) as the committee assessed the impact of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
The Senate was considering repealing the act through a new Senate bill introduced by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) called the Respect for Marriage Act. The bill would have restored the rights of all legally married couples along with any benefits that would lawfully accrue to them.
Rep. Lewis made the following statement before the committee: “I am very happy to see the Judiciary Committee holding hearings to address the issue of marriage equality. But at the same time, Mr. Chairman, I must admit I find it unbelievable that in the year 2011 there is still a need to hold hearings and debate whether or not a human being should be able to marry the one they love.”
He continued: “I grew up in southern Alabama, outside of a little city called Troy. Throughout my entire childhood, I saw those signs that said ‘white restroom,’ ‘colored restroom,’ ‘white water fountain,’ ‘colored water fountain.’ I tasted the bitter fruits of racism and discrimination, and I did not like it. And in 1996 when Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, the taste of that old bitter fruit filled my mouth once again.”
“The Defense of Marriage Act is a stain on our democracy,” Lewis said. “We must do away with this unjust, discriminatory law once and for all. It reminds me of another dark time in our nation’s history, the many years when states passed laws banning blacks and whites from marrying. We look back at that time now with disbelief, and one day we will look back on this period with that same sense of disbelief.”
“When people used to ask Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. about interracial marriage, he would say, ‘Races do not fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married.’ Marriage is a basic human right. No government, federal or state, should tell people they cannot be married. We should encourage people to love and not hate,” he added.
“Human rights, civil rights, these are issues of dignity. Every human being walking this Earth, man or woman, gay or straight, is entitled to the same rights,” he continued. “It is in keeping with the American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These words mean as much now as they did at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. That is why Congress must not only repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, but work to ensure full marriage equality for all citizens, together with the privileges and benefits marriage provides. All across this nation, same-sex couples are denied the very rights you and I enjoy. They are denied hospital visitation rights, and they are denied equal rights and benefits in health insurance and pensions, simply because the person they love happens to be of the same sex. Even in states where they have achieved marriage equality, these unjust barriers remain, all because of the Defense of Marriage Act.”
That same year, Lewis delivered an impassioned speech calling for an end to the discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on gay and lesbian service members.
“Today this nation has taken an important step toward inclusion by ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It was a policy that left courageous men and women prepared to give their lives for their country trembling in fear, concerned that their sexual orientation might be discovered. And that discovery alone could end their military careers. They lived in terror on the battlefield during the day, and they wrestled with their consciences at night. That is too much for one human being to bear.
“I am glad that the military command, under the leadership of President Obama, has ended these silent nights of terror and lifted the stain of indignity from those who are lesbian, gay and straight serving honorably in the armed forces. It is a moment of redemption for the military, which has shown leadership before in matters related to discrimination. And it is a moment of redemption for our entire society. It is always progress when a nation takes one more step toward the truth, that we are all one people, one human family. We are all a spark of one divine source, regardless of our differences.