After 13 years together, Jerry Passaro and Tommy Buckholz were married on Nov. 26, 2008, in an intimate ceremony at their home in Milford, Connecticut. They exchanged vows in front of their Christmas tree surrounded by Tommy’s sister and Jerry’s parents and stepparents. They had a small party and posed for pictures in front of the tree with their family members and their beloved poodle, Sachi. “It was nothing extravagant,” Jerry says. “We were with the people that we loved.”
It was a bittersweet celebration, to say the very least. Tommy, a former chemist at Bayer pharmaceutical, was seriously ill with lymphoma. He passed away two months after the wedding. For 18 months, Jerry cared for Tommy at home, accompanied him to chemotherapy treatments and medical appointments, and spent long days by his hospital bedside as his illness progressed.
Like any spouse facing terminal illness, Tommy sought to ensure that Jerry, who is disabled and receives a $933 monthly Social Security check, would be taken care of after he was gone. Prior to his death, he contacted Bayer about his pension, and received assurances that Jerry would be the beneficiary. A month after Tommy’s funeral, Jerry contacted Bayer’s benefits administrator about the pension, which amounts to more than $500 a month. A customer service agent confirmed Jerry could receive the pension. Jerry submitted the required paperwork, but a month passed with no response. He called the benefits administrator again and was told that he couldn’t receive the benefit because he was not in a legal marriage. Bayer’s pension plan is subject to federal laws, including DOMA, which means Jerry and Tommy’s marriage didn’t exist as far as the federal pension laws are concerned.
Jerry was completely blindsided. “We were treated with respect when we went to the Town Hall of Milford to apply for the marriage license and set things up with the justice of the peace and all that, so to have someone say that I was not legally married—I didn’t even know that they could say such a thing,” he recalls.
The Social Security administration is similarly bound by DOMA, and thus Jerry cannot receive the death benefit normally available to surviving spouses.
Jerry still lives in their small house, which Tommy bought before he and Jerry met. But without the pension, he has difficulty paying property taxes and meeting other expenses.
Jerry, a former hairstylist, met Tommy in the mid-90s, when they both worked out at the same gym. They struck up a friendship and began dating. Tommy was a football fan and an avid outdoorsman who introduced Jerry to the joys of gardening, hiking and stargazing. Jerry, who has volunteered his talents as a flutist and piccolo player in the Milford Concert Band for nearly 17 years, was more of an indoor guy. “It took some time for us to iron out some of the Oscar and Felix Unger-type things,” he says of their relationship. But they shared a love of cooking and regularly prepared elaborate Sunday dinners that they served to friends and family. Jerry keeps contact with Erin, Tommy’s teenage daughter from a previous relationship, who lives in California.
“It was a wonderful experience, and I loved it,” Jerry says of his life with Tommy. “And I loved him.”