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Q&A: Local LGBTQ leader reflects on Respect for Marriage Act

KPBS Staff
San Diego Pride attendees march during the parade, July 2017.

President Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act into law Tuesday. The significance of the law would protect same-sex marriages in the event that the U.S. Supreme Court ever overturns Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 decision, which legalized gay marriage nationwide. The new law also protects interracial marriages.

Fernando Lopez, the Executive Director of San Diego Pride, joined Midday Edition on Tuesday to discuss what the passage of the bill means for LGBTQ Americans and for people in interracial marriages, which are also protected under the law. The conversation below has been edited for clarity.

This bill is a point of pride for the community, isn't it?

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Lopez: It is a wonderful day of pride. This is decades of work by activists and everyday people all across the country for years and years, just asking for dignity and respect. As you stated, it is also a sigh of relief, right? We know that our community is under attack, that we're under threat, that even Justice Clarence Thomas, in his concurrence earlier this year, called out the need to repeal same-sex marriage rights. So, this codifies that protection into federal law — it's a day of joy and a day of relief for our community.

The legislation is called the Respect of Marriage Act. That, in itself, is progress, isn't it?

Lopez: The name itself, right? We know that this will repeal the 1990's law, what was called D.O.M.A, or Defense of Marriage Act, and now we're talking about respect. Earlier in the 90s, we were looking at maybe only 20% of the American public supporting the LGBTQ community. And now we're talking about 80% of the American public supports full-equal protection for the LGBTQ Americans all across this country. So, we've made huge progress.

I think the fact that this is marriage, the fact that this is about love, is important because our community has been so discriminated against and so demonized that we were told that we didn't even have the human capacity to love. So today, that codifies that recognition that humanization of our community in federal law today, which is so important when our community is fighting so many acts of violence all across this country. So today is about love.

You also have extensive background in marriage equality work - tell us about that.

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Lopez: I actually got my start in this work with marriage equality. This year would have been my 21-year wedding anniversary. It was actually 20 years ago, almost this month, that my then-husband — at the time — before it was legal, went to the emergency room — and I was not allowed to be in his room because our marriage wasn't legal. He wasn't allowed to be on my health insurance, and I wasn't allowed in that hospital room. I wasn't allowed to make medical decisions. People often forget that the 412 state rights, the 1,138 federal rights, privileges and protections and responsibilities that come with marriage are so new.

It's been an incredible journey to be a part of this for the last 20-plus years of my life. So after that incident at the emergency room with my husband, I knew that I had to do more. We knew that we had to do more. I got involved by volunteering at our local Marriage Equality USA chapter, and I would go on to be a regional director for Equality California, the statewide director, and then the national director for Marriage Equality USA, and worked on Proposition 8 alongside Cara Dessert, our CEO at the LGBTQ community center. It's been a long battle. It's been an amazing journey, and I'm glad to have been some small part of that work.

Ten years ago, then-Vice President Biden's declaration of support for same-sex marriage in an interview that was broadcast on "Meet The Press" was met with shock and even seen as somewhat controversial at the time. Today, he signs it into law. What do you think of that?

Lopez: I think that is change, that is progress, and that's absolutely what our community is fighting for. If we are fighting for change, we have to believe that systems and people can change and in a moment when our community or this country actually can seem so politically polarized, so divided, the fact that this had bipartisan support shows that equal protection under the law for all Americans is a nonpartisan issue. Here in San Diego, in fact, we had Republican Mayor Jerry Sanders at the forefront of that fight for marriage equality.

This new law also protects interracial marriage. What's the significance of that connection?

Lopez: If you look throughout the history of marriage equality, you really see a deep interconnection between women's rights, voting rights, interracial marriage rights, and then the pathway to LGBTQ marriage equality. The first case was in 1937 here in California, Perez v. Sharp, which helped to allow for interracial marriage in the state of California. And it wasn't until 30 years later, 1967, when Loving v. Virginia would allow federal marriage for interracial couples.

My parents were disowned by their parents because they married outside of their race, ethnicity, and religion — so for me, it holds a deep significance knowing that that work for women's rights, for racial equality, have directly led to the rights for LGBTQ equality and justice. It cannot be understated.

The last time you were on the program, the topic was violence against the LGBTQ community. Has that improved? Has it gotten worse? And what is your hope at this moment in time for the community?

Lopez: Unfortunately, the Department of Homeland Security just released an update that showed an ongoing domestic terror threat to three specific communities, which was immigrant communities, the Jewish community, and the LGBTQ community — which happened to connect to all three of my identities personally. In this time, we've seen an uptick in violence towards our community. There are at least 124 drag events in this country that we're aware of that have been attacked. There were several Pride events that have been attacked this year, and so we know that our community is under threat.

Moments like this where we can celebrate, love, humanize our community, and again, show that there is so much more that connects our community, our country, with love and hope and freedom and justice. The more we're humanizing our community, hopefully we can push back against that violence and show that we're not going anywhere and that our country and our community stands with us.

  • The new law is intended to protect same-sex and interracial marriages if the U.S. Supreme Court reverses Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide.