Sal's world, 46 years later



Poor Sal...If you're a devotee of Mad Men, the best show on television and one that may well rank with The Sopranos and The Wire by the end of its run, you'll surely get my reference. And even if you don't watch the show, you'll catch my drift from the context.

In Sunday's third-season debut, Salvatore Romano, the gay ad executive who seems fated, in still-repressive 1963, to suffer his personal secret in silence, nearly enjoyed a nocturnal encounter with a hunky bellhop in a Baltimore hotel. Unfortunately, the fire alarm went off - and that's when dapper Don Draper, his uber-heterosexual colleague, scrambled down the fire escape from his room upstairs and inadvertently saw Sal with the bellhop. The next day, on the plane back to New York, Draper, a steward of his own secrets, ostensibly asked Sal to sign on to a new ad slogan for the London Fog raincoat: "Limit your exposure." Sal nodded in silence. He got the metaphor, hence the advice.

It was one of those moments when you realize how much has changed in the ensuing 46 years. Today, Sal would be out at the office and Twittering about it. Indeed, the actor who plays Sal is gay, he came out more than a decade ago, and he lives with a guy in a long-term relationship.

Yet, even as things stand now, the actor and his companion can't jointly partake of the various federal rights and benefits currently available to opposite-sex couples. For instance, they can't jointly file federal taxes, or qualify for survivor benefits under Social Security. And if they were to get married in the handful of states where gay marriage is legal, their bond would be deemed invalid everywhere else, even though Article IV, Section One of the U.S. Constitution states: "Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State."

These restrictions have been the law of the land since 1996, when Congress enacted, and President Clinton signed, the Defense of Marriage Act, better known today as DOMA. (Clinton was up for re-election that year, and he bragged about signing DOMA in campaign ads on Christian radio stations.) The gay community has targeted DOMA for the trash heap ever since, hoping either that Congress would erase it via new legislation or that the courts would throw it out. Indeed, a California lawsuit, brought by a gay couple, is currently seeking to do the latter.

Which brings us to the testy relations between the gay community and the Obama administration.

Gay leaders, who last winter had such high expectations, have been miffed for months that Obama hasn't lifted a finger to fight for the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" military policy, or even to oppose the ongoing dismissal of openly gay service members. And this summer, they have been particularly incensed with Obama's legal position on the aforementioned DOMA lawsuit.

Back in June, the president's lawyers at the Justice Department filed papers defending the constitutionality of DOMA and therefore seeking the dismissal of the gay couple's lawsuit; for instance (and this is what ticked off gay leaders the most), Obama's lawyers argued that states can legally reject gay ceremonies performed elsewhere - in the same way that Connecticut once invalidated an uncle-niece marriage from Italy, and New Jersey once smacked down an underage female who had been married in Indiana. As gay leaders saw it, the Obama lawyers were basically equating gay marriage with incest and child rape; but as the Obama lawyers saw it, they were merely pointing out that judges in the past have allowed the states to carve out policy exceptions to the Constitution's Full Faith and Credit clause.

Still, the gay ire apparently stung the Obama team. Yesterday, Obama, seeking to make nice with the gay community (a vocal, well-organized, and well-heeled faction within the liberal base), sought to revise his approach to the DOMA lawsuit. In new court papers filed yesterday, his Justice Department lawyers made it clear that they're still seeking the dismissal of the DOMA lawsuit...but this time, they're essentially saying that they feel rotten about doing it.

The Obama lawyers say in their new brief that they're obligated to defend the laws enacted by Congress, regardless of whether the president agrees with the laws on policy grounds. And page two of the brief makes it clear that Obama does not agree with DOMA on policy grounds:

"With respect to the merits, this Administration does not support DOMA as a matter of policy, believes that it is discriminatory, and supports its repeal. Consistent with the rule of law, however, the Department of Justice has long followed the practice of defending federal statutes as long as reasonable arguments can be made in support of their constitutionality, even if the Department disagrees with a particular statute as a policy matter, as it does here."

The new Obama position (essentially, "we feel bad about opposing the DOMA lawsuit") has not mollified the gay community; as the Human Rights Campaign said yesterday in a statement, "While they contend that it is the DOJ's duty to defend an act of Congress, we contend that it is the administration's duty to defend every citizen from discrimination."

But gays are in a tough position on this one, because the Obama lawyers have a valid argument. As the lawyers argued in a footnote, they want to ensure "that subsequent administrations will faithfully defend laws with which they may disagree on policy grounds." That makes a fair bit of sense. It's a cinch bet that gay leaders would be furious if a future Republican regime refused to defend a gay-friendly law in court simply because it opposed the law on policy grounds.

The solution is in the legislative realm. Obama stressed in a separate White House statement yesterday that while his lawyers feel obligated to defend DOMA in court, he personally believes that DOMA should be repealed. He said, "I have long held that DOMA prevents (gays) from being granted equal rights and benefits," and he vowed to "work with Congress" to get the law off the books.
Hence the real question: How hard will Obama really fight to get DOMA repealed?

Last I heard, he's expending a lot of political capital on health care reform, trying to finesse the public option issue and ensure that the liberals and the Blue Dogs don't gnaw each other so badly that the party splits apart. And speaking of potential party rifts, how can Obama substantively "work with Congress" to repeal DOMA without imperiling all those newbie Democratic congressmen who got themselves elected in normally Republican districts?

Hey Sal, we know that the closet circa '63 is no fun. But maybe you're lucky to have missed the slow descent from high expectations in '09.