For gay couples, DOMA court case about fairness

Recorder/Paul Franz
Ann Gibson and Annie Cheatham are among the many gay couples who are watching how the U.S. Supreme Court decides the case challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Recorder/Paul Franz Ann Gibson and Annie Cheatham are among the many gay couples who are watching how the U.S. Supreme Court decides the case challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

CONWAY — Like many of Franklin County’s same-sex married couples, Annie Cheatham and Ann Gibson are awaiting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the federal Defense of Marriage Act with a blend of anxiety and hope.

Unlike many of those couples, though, Cheatham and Gibson met while working on Capitol Hill, 21 years before Congress would enact the 1996 law that would deny them federal benefits. And even though the two women, who celebrated a commitment ceremony in 1995, were legally married in Massachusetts soon after the state became the first in the nation to grant same-sex marriages, they feel they’re still waiting to receive fair treatment from the federal government.

When Massachusetts allowed gay and lesbian couples to marry in 2004, recalls Cheatham, “it felt wonderful. I felt protected, like the big arms of the state were wrapping around me, and there was comfort in that. I couldn’t be discriminated against in certain ways.”

Gibson, 61, seated beside her 68-year-old wife on the couch in their Conway living room, added, “We were protected. And yet we don’t have that protection from the federal government.”

That could change depending, many think, on the swing vote of Justice Anthony J. Kennedy in a decision the court is expected to render on a part of the law that restricts from married same-sex couples more than 1,000 federal benefits that are to extended to heterosexual couples.

Massachusetts has an estimated 20,000 same-sex marriages, according to the advocacy organization Mass Equality. Although U.S. Census and other government agencies don’t specifically collect data about the number of same-sex marriages, the 2000 Census showed that at the time, Franklin County had the third highest concentrations of same-sex households in the state, 1.2 percent.

For Cheatham and Gibson, those amount to Social Security and federal pension survivor benefits if either spouse dies. It also means that they can’t file their federal income tax return jointly. And it also means they could be subject to the same federal estate tax law that is the basis for the case now before the court. There, Edith Windsor, now 83, was left with a $306,000 estate tax bill after her wife died in 2009, two years after they’d married in Canada,

The Conway couple, who met while both were congressional aides and moved to the area in the 1980s, were married in their backyard by Gibson’s sister, who served as a temporary justice of the peace for the occasion. Cheatham, who has been executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture and until last week president of the New England Farmers Union, said she’s thankful that in Massachusetts, the two of them are protected from forms of discrimination, like next-of-kin privileges for hospital visitation, that would apply in her native state of North Carolina, which last year passed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Gibson, who moved to the area in 1984 and six years later with Cheatham opened Annie’s Garden Shop in Amherst, which they have since sold, pointed to a recent story of the lesbian widow of a 29-year-old National Guard member killed by an Afghan suicide bomber who was denied any survivor benefits, including return of the wedding ring recovered from her body.

“It was heart-breaking what she had to do,” Gibson said. “Her spouse just been killed. It’s sad, it’s wearying, it’s infuriating. It’s the last acceptable prejudice.”

Gibson, who has worked for Quigley Builders in Ashfield for the past two years, first doing construction and now administrative work, said, “It’s a powerful thing, when it gets personalized, to say to somebody, you’re going to get your Jimmy’s Social Security benefits when he dies, but we can’t.”

For federal workers like Darlene Monds, whose wife, Cindy Burch, can be denied her spousal benefits, the effects of DOMA run even deeper, affecting federal pension, health insurance and more.

“Federal employees are the most impacted,” said Monds, 52, a natural resource specialist who has worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 30 years.

“I’m within five years of retirement, and I can’t leave spousal benefits to Cindy, even though we’re married legally and have two kids together. If I were married to a man, there’s all kinds of spousal benefits I could leave her. That’s huge.”

Although Monds has contributed to her federal pension for three decades, the couple, together for 24 years, has seen Burch sacrifice years of full-time work as a psychologist to care for the couple’s two children when they were very young. That means that Burch, who at 49 now works as a school psychologist in Conway, will have less to retire on if Monds dies first and she’s left without survivor benefits.

When to prepare different sets of tax returns, they’ve found plenty of confusion.

“If we went out and got TurboTax, we’d be making our own interpretation and pretending we don’t exist as a couple,” Monds said. “We’ve gone to two different (accountants,) and it’s all about interpretation.”

The family depends on Burch for health insurance because DOMA discounts their 2004 marriage, but Monds has begun to use her federal policy for herself so that she can eventually have post-retirement insurance for herself.

“I don’t even know what all the implications are,” she admits. “Until we get to the age where somebody dies ...”

The Ashfield couple had to begin preparing adoption papers for their children, Arianna, now 14, and Jack, now 12, even before they were born in case there were complications in those days before same-sex marriage was legalized in the state.

The family still makes sure to pack adoption papers, power of attorney and other legal documents whenever they travel outside of New England, Monds said, in case of an emergency where their relationship is challenged.

“Its pretty scary,” she said. “The reality is (authorities) still may not recognize it. It’s a risk we take.”

Any Supreme Court decision would affect only the nine states and the District of Columbia, where same-sex marriages are legal. But overturning DOMA would have “huge implications for us,” allowing gay marriages equal benefits.

Yet any kind of narrow ruling, guessed Monds, is going to keep the cases returning to the Supreme Court, because gay military families and other federal employees transferred from state to state could continue to have their benefits affected.

Still, she said, “There’s really hope over the horizon. I see our kids and how they respond to the Supreme Court discussions on the news: they’re mortified. This generation is going to make a huge difference. We’ve come a long way, and we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Gibson agreed, saying it boils down to a matter of justice.

“I really believe this is why (attitudes are) ... changing, and how it’s changing. But it’s really slow.”

You can reach Richie Davis
or 413-772-0261, ext. 269

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