A Mental Health Reflection on DOMA

 Osefame Ewaleifoh (PhD/ MPH Student)

Picture 1

Art by Andy S

Shortly after 10am on Wednesday the 26th of June 2013, the United States Supreme Court released its final ruling on the highly anticipated case of the U.S vs. Windsor. In this ruling the Supreme Court effectively struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). While this decision has obvious immediate consequences, the full implication of this Supreme Court ruling will take months and years to fully unfold. In the interim however, I cannot resist the urge to contemplate the mental health significance of this ruling- particularly as articulated by Justice Anthony Kennedy in the Court’s majority opinion.

In 1996 President Bill Clinton as a compromise with the Republican controlled house, signed a Federal law that formally defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. This law was codified as the Defense of Marriage ACT (DOMA). While President Bill Clinton has since publicly disavowed this law, the implications of the law remained in effect.

A few years later, the contradictions of this law became more jarring as several states across the nation began to legalize same sex marriage. As beautifully pointed out in a blog posting by Sara Boonin a law professor at Suffolk University, suddenly same sex couples married in a state like Massachusetts “could receive all state protections that flow from marriage but none of the federal protections associated with marriage. And the same distinction applied to the legal responsibilities of marriage”[1]. To borrow from the eminent social psychologist Leon Festinger, this new arrangement guaranteed a steady stream of “cognitive dissonance” for families trapped in this labyrinth: on the state’s side your marriage was legally recognized, while on the federal side your union was illegitimate.

As cruel as the legal implications of this federal-state arrangement were, it was only the beginning- for most couples the true challenge of DOMA was in its mental health implications.

Imagine growing up as a child in a home knowing that your parents’ relationship has been officially sanctioned by the state as a fraud and illegal. At the core of every meaningful relationship is the feeling of love , safety and security. For most same sex couples DOMA stripped away any formal sense of safety or security that might have come from their relationship. Each of these horrid stories collectively culminated in the U.S v Windsor case that might serve as legal landmark references for years to come, much like Roe vs. Wade or Brown vs. Board.

While several cases have been brought up at various judicial levels that obliquely challenged the constitutionality of DOMA, the case of U.S. v. Windsor provided the first opportunity for the Supreme Court to definitively address the constitutionality of DOMA- and address it, it did!

The Windsor case specifically addressed the legitimacy of a same sex couple, (legally recognized by the state) to claim a federal estate tax exemption for a surviving spouse. Legal experts have pointed out not only the outcome of the ruling, but also the process and legal rational employed in the ruling. A lot of attention has been given, and will continue to be given to the majority opinion of the court as articulated by Anthony Kennedy. This attention is deserved.

An excerpt from the opinion from Anthony Kennedy reads:

[DOMA] humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples. The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.” [2]

The opinion further reads:

DOMA forces same-sex couples to live as married for the purpose of state law but unmarried for the purpose of federal law, thus diminishing the stability and predictability of basic personal relations the State has found it proper to acknowledge and protect. By this dynamic DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state sanctioned same-sex marriages; for it tells those couples, and the entire world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition. This places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage.” [2]

Like every other advocate for equality in human interactions, I read the Supreme Court’s ruling with enormous pleasure and elation. As a mental health advocate it was deeply satisfying to see the court acknowledge the enormous mental health injustice imposed on millions by the existence of DOMA.

While it is naïve to suggest that the mental health quandary and inequality experienced by same sex couples has been suddenly resolved, today we can celebrate the fact that the cognitive dissonance, mental anguish and humiliation inflicted on couples and children of same sex families has been formally publicly articulated and exposed.

Clearly the true assault of DOMA was neither on taxes or estate rights alone, but also on the psychological well being of children from and couples in same sex marriages. Here is to hoping that the recent Supreme Court ruling provides a harbinger of things to come – a world free of mentally traumatic and discriminatory laws.


1. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sarah-boonin/united-states-v-windsor_b_3518187.html

2. The supreme court of the United states. The UNITED STATES v. WINDSOR, EXECUTOR OF THE ESTATE OF SPYER, ET AL. http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/12pdf/12-307_6j37.pdf

About NPHR Blog (339 Articles)
The is the blog of the Northwestern Public Health Review journal. The blog and journal are both student run and contain research articles, opinions, interviews and other content pertaining to public health.

2 Comments on A Mental Health Reflection on DOMA

  1. Another positive move in the right direction for same-sex couples, and equality as a whole…

    Feds to Extend New Benefits to Same-Sex Couples: Eric Holder


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