Sunday, 28 June 2015

"Thank you, Mr President"

A former BBC colleague, Mike Cooper-DiFrancia, a Brit who now lives in the US, has written a powerful commentary about last week's two historic judgements by the US Supreme Court.

With his permission, I reproduce it here:

It's been a giddy old week here, with two major decisions made by the Supreme Court which directly affect the viability of my new life in America. It's a life I love, so I wanted to share my thoughts for those interested enough to read them.

In a 6-3 decision on Thursday, the Supreme Court saved the controversial health care law that will define President Barack Obama's administration for generations to come. Whatever your thoughts about the way it's been implemented, the difficult birth is now over and Obamacare is here to stay.

Sure, we can spend the years ahead finessing things, but the fact is that millions of people who previously could not afford to insure themselves now don't risk having a basic right in a civilised country taken away from them. There's no longer a reason for people to die because they can't afford the drugs they need for things like cancer or HIV, and the threat of that is no longer on the table.

By way of an anecdote, a few months ago I went to pick up my own prescription at our local CVS. "You do have insurance?" asked the wide-eyed woman behind the pharmacy counter. "Yes, thankfully," I replied. "How much would it be without?" I asked. "$2,588" she told me. That was for 28 tablets.

"Wow. Is that the most expensive prescription you've seen?" I asked. "No, we had one the other day for $38,000," she said. That turned out to be another HIV prescription, also for 28 days' supply. In short, without the Affordable Care Act, I wouldn't and couldn't afford to be here.

Countries like the UK and its neighbours in Europe look at America with incredulity because - however it's done - a civilised, First World society finds a way to look after its people and ensure they have access to the necessities of medication and healthcare. That's not socialism or communism: it's social responsibility, and those shouldn't be dirty words, whatever colour you choose to paint your politics.

In other news, yesterday's much tighter 5-4 decision by the Court to uphold marriage equality replaces the patchwork of states in favour and against with a blanket guarantee that - wherever you live and whomever you love - you can join your partner of choice in a legal union that no local or state government can take away.

Again, without the repeal of the crucial section of the Defense of Marriage Act that happened two years ago, I simply couldn't be here. That reform finally opened the gateway to immigration for thousands of gay and lesbian couples like us around the world, who were effectively exiled from the US by a law which prevented US citizens from sponsoring their foreign partners for the Green Cards they needed in order to be legally resident here. It was a momentous decision that changed our lives for the better, giving legally married couples like Marc and I the freedom to choose which country we wanted to live in.

But with much of America still deciding at state level not to recognise those unions, it left a lot of grey areas and uncertainty, including the idea that a married couple could file federal taxes jointly, but would have to continue to file state taxes separately. That included us in North Carolina.

There's been much said in the last 24 hours about how this ruling guarantees equality. Make no mistake: it absolutely does not. Many states (including ours) still have no equality legislation extending to LGBT people. You could marry today, post your pictures online tomorrow, and then be fired on Monday for being gay or lesbian, and this ruling does nothing to change that.

But what it does is move the country forwards and set the bar closer to where it should be in terms of acceptable behaviour towards all citizens. We'll be jumping through legal hoops for some time to come, but the Supreme Court of the United States has spoken, and the biggest "test" of whether gay couples are as legally viable as straight couples is - at last - behind us.

We live in interesting times. I, for one, am absolutely thrilled to be here and see my new country taking brave, tentative steps towards where my country of origin already stands. Civil rights for everyone are back on the table, and this time they're not going away. Black Lives Matter; Gay Lives Matter; ALL lives matter.

2016 may, or may not, finally see a woman in the White House. (Perhaps a female president is still a bridge too far?) Perhaps a third Democrat term is beyond the party's reach, given the way dissent is fomented in this country by big business, the church and the gun lobby (to name but three). The figures would certainly seem to suggest that America is in better shape than it was at the end of 2008, but we all know that history has an odd way of looking at events, and sadly Barack Obama's two terms are more likely to be remembered by many for the things he got wrong.

Personally, I think strong leadership and - where necessary - a heavy-handed approach to social reform are sometimes exactly what's needed to get things done, especially when a country - a Super Power no less, to which the rest of the world looks for cues - refuses to move with the times.

Before 2010, an HIV travel ban (an 11th-hour concession made by the Clinton administration at the height of the AIDS crisis, and one that even George W. Bush conceded was unfair in the new century) remained on the books. I, and thousands like me, were forced to lie on our Landing Cards every time we visited the US, sending a very clear message about how the country saw us, and telling us in no uncertain terms that we weren't welcome here.

To his credit, Bush began the process to remove that ban, but Obama finished the job. His administration then went on to push for my Massachusetts marriage to mean something at federal level, and the door to a new life was opened to me. He guaranteed that I - and millions like me - would be able to get health insurance and medication. And now he's effectively told the 13 remaining states still clinging to the notion that "It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" to stop discriminating against a love that finally can dare to speak its name.

I think that's a pretty good legacy. Thank you, Mister President.

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