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DOMA Stories:
Federal Marriage Discrimination Hurts Families

GLAD is in court challenging the federal government's discrimination against legally married same-sex couples. In Gill v OPM and Pedersen v OPM, we represent couples and widowers who are harmed in various ways by DOMA. But DOMA hurts many more people than we can represent in these lawsuits.

In these stories, loving couples, widows and widowers, from all walks of life, describe how DOMA hurts their families.

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DOMA decision: discuss!

Photograph of Bette Jo Green & Jo Ann Whitehead

Bette Jo Green & Jo Ann Whitehead

We are both 68 years old and living on a modest income. So, we were thrilled when we heard that Judge Joseph Tauro, ruling in our lawsuit Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, declared that it is unconstitutional to treat same-sex married couples differently than straight married couples under federal law. We now have hope that our retirement years will be more secure and stress-free.

We have both worked hard at jobs we loved and paid into Social Security throughout our careers. Bette Jo retired after 35 years as a labor and delivery nurse; Jo Ann still works part-time as a garden educator. We joined the lawsuit challenging Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act after Jo Ann was denied the Social Security spousal benefit that would increase her monthly Social Security payment. We were also concerned that because of DOMA, should Bette Jo pass away first, Jo Ann would lose nearly $13,000 a year in retirement income because she is ineligible to receive Bette Jo’s Social Security survivor benefit. Heterosexual married couples access these important safety nets without question.

Because of this federal discrimination, we worry a lot about our future. And we aren’t alone. Many senior same-sex couples face the same dispiriting reality that we do.

When the ruling was released on July 8, we were in the Midwest visiting family and friends. We were with Jo Ann’s brother and his wife when we heard a “whoop” from him that we should come see the Rachel Maddow show, which was reporting on the decision. His wife and the two of us watched the program with him. Being retired, they understood Social Security enough to know one could apply for the other’s benefits. But as we discussed the case, they were astonished that we couldn’t because of DOMA. As Jo Ann’s sister-in-law said, “That’s not fair.”

We know that these types of personal, one-on-one conversations with friends, family, neighbors and coworkers are the best way of creating greater understanding and support for the need for same-sex couples to be treated equally under the law. We hope that our court case and this ruling encourage and inspire other married same-sex couples – and all members of the LGBT community – to talk to the people in their lives about the harm they suffer under DOMA. If our community is to be successful in achieving full equality, we must not only convince judges, we must also win in the court of public of opinion.

We’ve been together nearly 30 years and married since 2004. We have supported each other through illness (we are both cancer survivors) and losing parents and close friends. We’re involved with our community Neighborhood Watch, we help our older neighbors with grocery shopping and volunteer at local youth service organizations. Our lives are enriched by the love and support of our families and we have great hope that the next generation will be unencumbered by anti-gay prejudice. We experienced this firsthand at the recent wedding of a young bride and groom in Florida who took great delight when we joined in the “married couples dance” at their wedding reception. All we lack now is the full protection of the federal government, which would enable us to better care for ourselves and each other in the coming years.

We see Judge Tauro’s decision as a huge step for equal rights under the law. We know that the U.S. Department of Justice is likely to appeal the ruling. It could take several years before we have a final decision. No one can predict the final outcome. But for this moment, we’ve allowed ourselves to imagine life without DOMA. We would be full citizens of this country. We’d finally be validated as a married couple on the federal level, as well as in Massachusetts. This would mean we’d no longer be denied the federal benefits other legally married Massachusetts couples have. And the next generation wouldn’t have to fight these battles.

Bette Jo Green and Jo Ann Whitehead live in Jamaica Plain. They are being represented by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) in their legal challenge to DOMA Section 3.

This story was published as an opinion piece in this week’s Bay Windows.

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