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Op-ed: Movements Don't Stop and Start Every Two Years

Op-ed: Movements Don't Stop and Start Every Two Years

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Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill that repeals the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Barring complications with amendments or unforeseen circumstances, all 10 Democrats are expected to vote to pass the bill, sending it to the full Senate for consideration. This is a milestone that's been a long time coming.

When I talk about the effort to repeal DOMA, I often focus on the milestones we've reached since the Respect for Marriage Act was introduced in March: a record number of senators supporting repeal (31), a record number of House members also on board (133), public support for repeal at a record high (over 50%), a majority on the Senate Judiciary Committee pledging to vote "aye" on the repeal bill today, and a president who has formally endorsed the bill, despite a longstanding policy of the Obama administration to never take a position on bills that haven't passed at least one house of Congress.

Despite all of this, people scoff. If you live inside the Beltway, you probably hear (or are thinking) what we've heard since Election Day 2010: "So what? It'll never get through the Republican-controlled House, so why bother?" It's a classic cynical response to organizing, one that overvalues the short-term and shortchanges the long-term.

Movements don't start and stop every two years. It wasn't like we all woke up the day after Election Day 2008 and said to ourselves, "We may have a pro-repeal House, Senate and president coming in January. I guess we can go start repealing 'don't ask, don't tell'!" If we did that, then we would have wasted more than a decade. What if we had all said, "Why bother spending our time trying to get rid of 'don't ask, don't tell?'" every single year from 1995 to 2001, when anti-repeal Republicans controlled the House and Senate? What if we continued saying it from 2001 to 2009, when President George W. Bush and a majority of Congress opposed repeal, and we all sat on our hands for 17 years in total? Then when we finally reached the tipping point last year, public opinion would not have climbed to an astounding 77% nationwide in support of DADT repeal. Stories like those of Lt. Dan Choi would not have changed hearts and minds across America. We would not have had the critically important Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen on board, nor hundreds of members of Congress, nor editorials in newspapers across America in support of repeal. All of that took work, and if we had waited 17 years to even start it, we would not have been in a position to deliver the final blow that we did in December 2010.

Movements aren't built in two years, and they don't start and stop every two years. Organizing doesn't and shouldn't start and stop depending on who has the gavel in the House or who sits in the Oval Office. It starts when there's a problem. Today, service members are still treated as second-class citizens because of DOMA, as are legally married same-sex couples. So there's a problem, and the organizing must begin now.

What's the benefit of today's vote? First, take a moment and think of five friends and family members who don't even know what DOMA is, much less support its repeal. I'd bet that by the end of the month, three of them will have heard something about it, because today's vote will make headlines in news outlets large and small. It will change hearts and minds among those who are opposed or undecided, and the polling numbers might even tick up a point or two as a result.

Second, today's vote will provide momentum. Courage Campaign and its 750,000 members nationwide are organizing with Freedom to Marry and our state-based allies across the country for DOMA repeal. Progress excites and empowers people, and turns citizens into activists. Moreover, if successful, we can take the result to people like Democratic Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, with whom we've met and our members have petitioned, and ask when they're going to board the train that's leaving the station.

Third, today's vote will set benchmarks for who our friends are in the Senate. "Don't ask, don't tell" is dead; we know who stood with us to make it that way. But gay and lesbian service members are still treated as second-class citizens because of DOMA. It's not enough for a senator to say, "Sure, you can put your life on the line for your country, even if you're gay. But you can't have the same benefits as the straight person in the next bunk." Going into 2012, we need to know who service members' real friends are, and today's vote will be our first clue.

Bottom line: We may not get to the finish line on repealing DOMA before this Congress adjourns. But if you're working to repeal DOMA with us, don't let anyone tell you that your work is a waste of time. If we wake up within shouting distance of having enough votes come January 2013, then we need to be in a position to deliver the final blow, otherwise we may miss our chance. We repealed "don't ask, don't tell" -- at the eleventh hour, at the very end of the last Congress, and with some last-minute legislative maneuvering at that. Couples suffering from DOMA deserve a quicker resolution. That means we need to start changing senators' minds now. Success is not measured by what we can do now, but by progress we've made to achieve a goal.

We don't have any time to waste. We need to build the same kind of movement to repeal DOMA as the one that repealed "don't ask, don't tell," and we need to start it now.

ADAM BINK is Director of Online Programs for Courage Campaign, an online organizing network that empowers more than 700,000 grassroots and netroots activists to push for progressive change and full equality in California and across the country. Learn more about our work to repeal DOMA at www.couragecampaign.org.

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