Real Life and the Law
I finally made it to the stage just as the panel was about to start.
It was the 2009 Lavender Law Conference in Brooklyn, NY, the annual legal conference on LGBT legal issues organized by the National LGBT Bar Association, and I was supposed to talk about our recent challenge to Section 3 of DOMA, Gill v. OPM, on my first plenary panel ever. What I didn’t anticipate was a disabled Amtrak train delaying my NJ Transit commuter train from Princeton, NJ to Penn Station. (Why I ever thought it would be a good idea to stay with my sister an hour and a half away from the conference site, I’ll never know.)
My main goal for the panel was not to talk law, oddly enough. Instead, I wanted to convey the stories of the lives of our plaintiffs – real people and families who have been harmed by the federal government’s refusal to recognize their marriages thanks to Section 3 of DOMA. Here’s an excerpt of my remarks:
And that’s where our real, live plaintiffs come in. GLAD spent three years searching for couples who represent a broad spectrum of our community, who could show concrete harms and injuries due to the federal government’s refusal to recognize their marriages, and, for the most part, people who everyday citizens could relate to.
We have our name plaintiff, Nancy Gill, a postal worker – or “the lady behind the counter,” as she likes to call herself, who together with her partner Marcelle of 29 years and spouse of 5, raise a teenage daughter and 9 year old son. While Nancy is able to cover their two children under her federal employee health plan, the federal government refuses to recognize their marriage for purposes of spousal health insurance benefits. And because Nancy and Marcelle decided that it would be best for their children for Marcelle to be a stay-at-home parent, they now have to spend money that could be going to their kids’ college fund on Marcelle’s individual health insurance plan.
Herb Burtis was with his spouse John for 60 years, married for 5, when John died of Parkinson’s and related medical problems. By the time John passed away, their home had turned into a mini-hospice, and Herb spent much of those last few years – and their retirement savings – caring for John. Unfortunately for Herb, John had also been the higher wage earner their entire lives, and they both depended on his social security benefits to help them get by. In Herb’s case, John’s death has meant not only the loss of his life partner, but also a future of financial insecurity as he tries to survive on his social security benefits alone.
Sometimes the harm to our couples is as simple as having to pay more money than other similarly-situated couples – the gay tax, if you will. For Melba Abreau and Beatrice Hernandez, who have been together 22 years and married for 5, the fact that the federal government forces them to check “single” on their tax returns is not only insulting, but has also cost them around $20,000 over the last 4 years – and each year, that financial harm grows. That is money that they could be using to help start the business that they’ve always dreamed of owning together.
The federal government’s refusal to recognize legal and valid marriages between same-sex couples, due to DOMA, inflicts real harm on these couples. And while to many of our opponents, it may sound like all we want are benefits and money, nothing could be farther from the truth. These harms make it more difficult for these families to take care of each other, protect each other, and plan for their future security together.
Unsurprisingly, I ran out of time before I ever got to our legal theories. Yet, in the end, I think the lawyers who attended this first plenary panel at the Lavender Law conference – LGBT lawyers from across the country who contribute to creating equality in their own ways, whether it is through their private practice, their bar association, or just their personal activism – appreciated hearing about the bigger picture. Because behind every constitutional argument and statutory interpretation, there is a client whose interests and needs we represent as advocates. And every case that we bring offers new opportunities to expose and educate others about the reality and commonality of our lives.
Next year, though, I’m staying at the conference’s hotel.