Legally, DOMA is dead, but in Tennessee, it lives on.
On Wednesday evening, the UT College of Law hosted Abby Rubenfeld, a prominent marriage equality advocate and Nashville-based lawyer, to reflect on this year's Supreme Court ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act.
"Marriage equality is a really important thing for us to have in Tennessee," Rubenfeld said. "Whether or not people want to get married, we should have the right. We too should get to suffer the pains of marriage."
DOMA, a legislation instituted in 1996 that defined marriage as strictly between a man and a woman, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in June. However, the anti-gay marriage amendment in Tennessee's state constitution still stands. Also found in 35 other U.S. states, Rubenfeld called these amendments "mini-DOMAs."
Rubenfeld is currently working on a plan to attack Tennessee's DOMA through two separate lawsuits involving couples who married outside of the state and returned home to find that their marriage would not be recognized.
"I believe in our legal system," Rubenfeld affirmed. "I think our American justice system, at least in theory, is the best that there is and it should be able to work. I want to help make it work right."
Rubenfeld began practicing law in 1979 after graduating from Boston University's College of Law. She now runs a general law practice that focuses on family law, sexual orientation and AIDS-related issues. As an openly gay lawyer, Rubenfeld has faced prejudice, but continues to strive for justice.
"There have been times when things haven't gone so well throughout my career and I could have thrown in the towel and been pessimistic," Rubenfeld said. "But that's not going to fix anything. You've got to just keep going."
Rubenfeld's positive spirit and determination have been an inspiration to others, including Amanda Hill, a first-year law student who attended the lecture.
"That a Tennessee lawyer went and worked on these cases gives me faith that I can do what I'm doing and really make a difference," Hill said. "Really it shows that anyone can make a difference, lawyer or not."
Over the course of an hour, Rubenfeld explained that marriage equality is not just about being able to get married, but having all the benefits that accompany marriage.
One benefit that is often neglected is the right to get divorced, Rubenfeld said. Just as heterosexual couples fight, fall out of love and separate, homosexual couples experience the same strife.
"There are no residency requirements to get married in the states with marriage equality, but there are to get a divorce," Rubenfeld explained. "So gay couples can be caught in a sort of 'wed lock.'"
In the absence of sufficient legal protection, Rubenfeld said she believes employment discrimination is also a problem in Tennessee.
"I probably get about one phone call a week from people who have lost their jobs or had some kind of adverse employment action because they are homosexual or transgender," Rubenfeld said.
Child custody cases are particularly complex in a state where gay marriages are not recognized as legitimate.
"In my career I've seen a lot of people lose custody of their kids and I've cried a lot," Rubenfeld said. "It's very personal to me, and when I see someone lose custody of their child just because they're a lesbian I think how easily that could have been me."
Despite these pressing issues, Rubenfeld admitted that significant progress has been made since she started practicing law.
"I think marriage equality is becoming more of a norm than a radical thought," said Carmel Chase-Greenwood, a freshman studying communications and political science.
Rubenfeld emphasized that change can only happen if empowered individuals take action from within their communities, workplaces and homes.
"If I can convey nothing else to you today," Rubenfeld said, "I really want you to know that individuals can make a difference and change society ...The future is bright for marriage equality even in red Tennessee."