America’s LGBTQ community can breathe a small sigh of relief.
President Joe Biden on Tuesday signed into law the Respect for Marriage Act, formally repealing prior federal legislation that sought to exclude the LGBTQ community and providing a fail-safe measure should the Supreme Court’s right-wing majority do to marriage equality and interracial marriages what it did to abortion rights.
"Today's a good day — a day America take a vital step towards equality," Biden said at a White House signing ceremony.
"The road to this moment has been long, but those who believe in equality and justice, you never gave up," he added.
Prior to the event, Biden used Twitter to call the legislation “a landmark civil rights bill that honors the courage and sacrifice of generations of couples who fought for marriage equality and equal rights.”
“If there is one message that breaks through from today, it's that this law – and the love it defends – strikes a blow against hate in all its forms,” Biden said.
Hundreds of LGBTQ activists, advocates, and entertainers were present at the White House to witness the bill become law — a rare moment of celebration for a community that has found itself targeted by political vitriol and deadly attacks in 2022, unnerving activists and drag queens alike.
“It’s just a huge honor to be included among the people who are here to celebrate this victory for our community,” New York City drag artist and activist Marti Cummings told BuzzFeed News.
Also among those invited to the occasion was Andrew Hartzler, an openly gay man who went viral last week when he spoke out against his aunt, Missouri Republican Rep. Vicky Hartzler, when she used a floor speech in the House to tearfully — and unsuccessfully — plead with her colleagues to vote against the bill.
“I immediately started crying because it was just so surreal,” Andrew said of the moment he received his invitation this past weekend. “It’s really an honor. It says a lot about the power of your own voice and standing up for what you think — or what you know — is the truth and how far that will truly get you.”
The new law will guarantee the federal government recognizes marriages for same-sex and interracial couples should the nation’s top court try to unwind civil rights jurisprudence — something LGBTQ activists had feared might happen when Justice Clarence Thomas used the court’s decision overturning abortion rights to call for past cases on marriage equality and contraception to be reviewed next.
Congress can’t require states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because the US Constitution grants states, not the federal government, the power to determine who may wed. But should the Supreme Court overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case that stopped states from discriminating against same-sex couples in marriage, this new law means that the federal government will still recognize such marriages. States might once again outlaw marriage equality, but they will still have to recognize marriages of same-sex couples legally performed elsewhere.
It also formally repeals the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, a 1996 law that first denied federal rights and benefits to same-sex couples.
"With the stroke of the president's pen, the fundamental right to marry the person you love is enshrined in the law," outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi told those at the White House on Tuesday prior to the signing. "I was overwhelmed with emotion in bringing down the gavel on this legislation."
"Everyone deserves to bask in the magical blessing of building a union with the person you love," she added.
The passage of the law, which received bipartisan support in Congress, is evidence of the remarkable progress made by the LGBTQ community in recent decades. Polls show more than 70% of Americans now support marriage equality — an inverse from the 70% who opposed it when the Defense of Marriage Act was passed.
Biden is evidence of this social transformation. He was among the lawmakers who voted for DOMA, but in 2012, he beat then-president Barack Obama to the punch in publicly supporting marriage equality. "I got in trouble," Biden joked Tuesday about preempting Obama.
As president, Biden also made history by appointing Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, making him the first openly gay person confirmed to a presidential Cabinet post.
“Starting today, millions of American families will know that our marriages are protected — not just by a margin of one on the Supreme Court but by American law,” Buttigieg said Tuesday morning.
Singers Sam Smith and Cyndi Lauper were among the entertainers who performed at the White House on Tuesday to celebrate the occasion. "We can rest easy tonight because our families are validated, and because now we're allowed to love who we love," Lauper told reporters in the briefing room.
Cummings, the drag queen, was celebrating the law’s passage on Tuesday, but said Congress still needed to pass the Equality Act in order to provide greater protections to the LGBTQ community. “This is a great step in the right direction to begin to combat Clarence Thomas's statements that he made earlier this year, but certainly the fight is far from over,” they said.
“I hope Clarence Thomas is squirming a little bit today,” Cummings added. “I hope it shows them that we're not going back in the closet. We're not going anywhere. We've been here forever. And they can kick and scream all they want, but we're going to keep pushing forward until everybody is treated equally under the law.”