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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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Life is Good, Except for DOMA

Photograph of Mary McCarthy & Bonnie Winokar

Mary McCarthy & Bonnie Winokar

Mary McCarthy, 71, and Bonnie Winokar, 66, are making the most of their retirement years. They recently downsized their residence, moving from a larger home to a smaller ranch house in their hometown of Maynard—albeit one with room enough for Mary’s three granddaughters, who visit from Maryland during their school vacations. The couple has spent time traveling and being active in politics and the gay rights movement. Bonnie recently joined a local committee tasked with planning the building of a new high school in Maynard.

“We wake up most mornings and say life is good,” says Bonnie, a former math teacher. “We are very, very happy.”

Much of their security resulted from the careful retirement planning they have done over the course of their 23-year relationship. Their legal marriage in July 2004 also gave them access to protections they were denied without marriage. Most notably, Bonnie was able to add Mary, a retired chemist, to her health insurance plan, thus allowing them to save money on their healthcare costs.

More than that, being able to legally marry gave them a tremendous emotional satisfaction, after years of living closeted lives. Mary, who was raised in a strict Irish Catholic family and came out later in life after being in a heterosexual marriage, recalls their wedding day this way: “That day my inside matched my outside for the fist time in my life. It was just the most amazing feeling.” Her four siblings and their families all attended the nuptials, though some had faith-based objections to same-sex couples marrying. Granddaughter Isabelle, now 15, was the ring bearer; her younger twin sisters Madeline and Sarah, now 12, were flower girls.

“To me it’s absolutely wonderful because ten [or] twenty years ago I wouldn’t have dreamed that we would be in the position that we are,” Bonnie says of the legal and social advances for gay people in recent years. She recalls that when she started teaching in 1965, “you had to keep your lifestyle a secret. I didn’t start sharing it with people until probably the late seventies and it was just a little bit at a time.”

But despite their careful planning and state-level protections of legal marriage, DOMA threatens their stability. Currently, their primary sources of income are Bonnie’s pension and Mary’s Social Security check. But should Mary die before Bonnie, then Bonnie would not be eligible to receive Mary’s Social Security benefit—as other surviving spouses routinely do when the surviving spouse on her own receives a smaller social security benefit than the deceased spouse—because the federal government does not recognize them as a legally married couple. Bonnie is concerned that she would not be able to afford to stay in their home. “There’s no way I would be able to stay here and live as we are living with that money gone,” she says.

Mary, needless to say, is upset about the possibility that Bonnie would be in a financially precarious situation should she pass away. “Obviously I wish it were different. Bonnie’s the CFO around here and she’s handled the finances very well and we do the best we can. But it is kind of scary,” she says.

“I kind of have a Scarlett O’Hara attitude about it,” Mary adds with a wry laugh. “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

Kidding aside, both Bonnie and Mary do think about life without DOMA, and remain hopeful that they’ll be around to enjoy it.  “That would be the epitome of equality if DOMA were reversed,” says Bonnie. “To have your love recognized, and you don’t have to be afraid where you might end up, I think it’d be great.”

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