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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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Nowhere to Hide From DOMA’s Discrimination

Photograph of Beth Ryan & Jenny O’Flaherty

Beth Ryan & Jenny O’Flaherty

In 2005,  Beth Ryan and Jenny O’Flaherty packed up their three children and moved from Virginia, away from close friends, good jobs and a great community. They left because of a deeply hurtful encounter with Virginia’s laws that prevent gay parents and their children from forming any legal familial relationships even through private contracts. They moved to Vermont, where a civil union law guaranteed that Jenny and Beth’s union was legally recognized, and that through second-parent adoption, each would be able to form legal relationships to their children – Katie, now 14; Liam, now 11, and Molly, now 9 – two of whom were born to Beth and one of whom was born to Jenny.

Although happy for the opportunity to gain some civil recognition of their family, Jenny, 47, and Beth, 45, viewed their 2005 civil union as merely a legal formality, having pledged their lifelong commitment to each other in a traditional celebration on Cape Cod in 1993. It was a wedding any mother might want, complete with white dresses and 150 guests. Although Jenny and Beth intended to simply complete the legal paperwork for the civil union, their kids and their extended families insisted they plan something a bit more festive than a trip to Town Hall. So, they held a ceremony in their church at Christmas time, surrounded by their parents, their siblings, their children and one former “foster” daughter from Virginia, who is now an adult but remains close with the family.

When Vermont granted marriage rights to same-sex couples in 2009, Jenny and Beth, having already married twice, thought this time they could simply fill out the paperwork. Again, they were wrong. Once the new law passed, friends, neighbors and even near- strangers insisted they celebrate their legal marriage so that the community could share in this momentous political achievement. The couple obliged as a way to thank their Vermont neighbors for the political support they lent to passing the law. “It was really significant for our town to celebrate our marriage,” says Jenny.

The most recent ceremony took place at their Norwich home, with 120 guests, pizza and a keg of beer. The Justice of the Peace gave a brief history of Vermont’s evolution on relationship recognition for same-sex couples; Jenny and Beth followed with a short history of their relationship and the multiple markings of their commitment as a couple. After that, they exchanged fairly traditional wedding vows.

The marriage didn’t change the way Jenny, a physician, and Beth, a former lawyer, felt about their 20-year relationship. For them, the ’93 ceremony was their real wedding. But the nuptials had a significant impact on their children. Says Jenny, “We hadn’t anticipated the importance of that event for them. They are the ones who reminded us that our first anniversary was approaching and wondered what we were planning to do to celebrate. We had completely forgotten the date.”

The protections of marriage that they didn’t enjoy in Virginia have made life easier and richer for the Ryan-O’Flaherty family. In Virginia, the only member of the family Jenny could provide health insurance for was the child she bore. Beth covered herself and the two children she birthed through her workplace health plan – until she lost her job, which left more than half the family without insurance coverage. Now, Jenny is able to cover the whole family on her health insurance plan. This allows Beth to work part-time, volunteer, coach and be at home for their children. Jenny and Beth have also become legal foster parents, something they were ineligible to do in Virginia. They have a foster daughter from Vermont who lived with them for almost three years and although she is now twenty, maintains close contact with the family.

“We felt like we wanted to give something back,” Jenny explains. “Parenting is something we do well – we have a nice, fun, supportive household for kids.”

Though they could outrun Virginia’s discrimination, there is nowhere in the country where Jenny and Beth can hide from DOMA’s discrimination. The law prohibits federal recognition of their marriage, so they are unable to file their federal taxes jointly. As a result, they paid an extra $2,301 in taxes last year. Should Jenny pass away, only Liam would be entitled to her Social Security benefits.

They can live without the money. “There’s a whole lot more pressing problems in the world than the extra 2,000 dollars we pay annually to the federal government,” says Beth. “For me, the emotional impact of the inequality is much greater than the financial impact. The money is just money, it’s just a thing but the fact that my elected government actively denies that my family is a family [and] just as deserving as any other family …well, it just hurts sometimes.”

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