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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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I Owe It to Her Memory to Continue Fighting This

Photograph of Jacqueline Murphy

Jacqueline Murphy

For 21 years Jacqueline Murphy (above, right) and Eleanor Vasapollo (above, left, pictured with the couple’s niece) were a team at the Nail Loft, one of three businesses in a nondescript strip mall in suburban South Easton, MA. To the Nail Loft customers, Jacquie and Ellie seemed remarkably compatible business partners and friends. Not one customer knew that they had been a couple since 1987, that they had children and grandchildren, and that in July 2004 Jacquie and Ellie married on the beach in a small ceremony with just the two of them and a Justice of the Peace.

“We’d already been ‘married’ 18 years,” Jacquie says. She smiles and shrugs. “We just didn’t tell anybody. We were a family: 2 dogs, a cat, 2.5 children—you know the rest.”

Then, in November 2007, Ellie was diagnosed with cancer, and the couple’s life and death struggle began. Knowing she would eventually be unable to work and bills would start piling up, Ellie applied to the federal Social Security Administration (SSA) for Supplemental Security Income—also known as Social Security disability payments—for the duration of her treatment. She was denied. She appealed and was denied again. The third time she sought the help of an attorney and, once again, SSA turned her down.

Ellie died peacefully at home with Jacquie by her side on Monday, August 25, 2008—less than a year after she was diagnosed. Jacquie says it was the saddest day of her life.

“But in a way it was the most phenomenal, too,” says Jacquie. “To have lived with this dear person for 21 years, to have made this commitment and shared so much, and then to be with her during her final moments. I cherish every minute we spent together.”

In sharing her grief and the news of Ellie’s death, Jacquie was overwhelmed with love and support.

“It was awe inspiring,” she says, “how people turned around and accepted me. Here I was, grieving and coming out and feeling all this love at the same time.”

Even clients at the salon who had judgments about gay men and lesbians honored Jacquie as Ellie’s surviving spouse. But despite their legal marriage, the federal government did not.

Months after Ellie’s death SSA reversed its previous denial of disability payments during her cancer treatment. But SSA also ruled that unlike other surviving spouses Jacquie was not eligible to receive Ellie’s retroactive Social Security disability payments—payments that could have made a difference as she struggled to pay bills after Ellie died. In its December 2009 letter to Jacquie SSA explained that because of DOMA the federal government simply didn’t consider them married:

Congress did not intend same-sex spouses or survivors to be eligible for Social Security benefits. Regardless of the Social Security Administration’s position, the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996…established the legal definition of “marriage” as only a legal union between one man and one woman…

In other words, if Jacquie and Ellie had been a married opposite-sex couple who had been together for 21 years, who had raised kids and doted on grandkids, who had built and run a business together, and who had loved and supported each other through the very worst time of their lives—then Jacquie would have been recognized as a surviving spouse. SSA wouldn’t have blinked.

Jacquie says she will appeal SSA’s decision. She says she’ll keep fighting—for justice and for Ellie.

“Ellie was the strongest person I ever met. She fought her cancer till the very last day. I owe it to her memory to continue fighting this.”

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