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Gay spouses and government benefits

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While the Obama administration’s position on the Defense of Marriage Act is evolving, federal employees who have been victimized by the law remain where they always have been — stuck without benefits for their same sex spouses.

Though DOMA opponents hail the Obama administration’s recent decision to abandon its defense of the law as “momentous,” in practical terms they are no closer to securing victory.

This leaves them unable to provide their loved ones with the same benefits straight spouses have.

Postal clerk Nancy Gill said “limbo is a good word” for the state she’s in.

Gill has sued the Office of Personnel Management in order to get employer-sponsored health insurance for her spouse, Marcelle Letourneau. She and Letourneau have been together since 1980 and have two children. They were legally married in 2004 in Massachusetts, but that means nothing to the federal government.

“It didn’t even dawn on me that when I went to add Marcelle that my marriage wasn’t valid in the eyes of the government,” Gill said. “I go in and do my job, and I just want the rights that other people have.”

Gill started working for the Postal Service in 1987 and has been openly gay the entire time. It’s never been an issue with her colleagues, but Uncle Sam’s law is a different story. “I’ve never experienced any type of prejudice. I’ve never been treated unfairly” at work, she said, except for the DOMA issue.

President Obama has long advocated DOMA’s repeal, even while the administration defended it in court. The Obama White House’s legal stance may be moving away from support of the discrimination the law enshrines, but the government’s position as a whole remains confusing and even contradictory.

Last month, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. wrote to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to say Obama had concluded that Section 3 of the law is unconstitutional. That section says: “the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”

Yet in the letter’s very next paragraph, Holder says: “Notwithstanding this determination, the President has informed me that Section 3 will continue to be enforced by the Executive Branch. To that end, the President has instructed Executive agencies to continue to comply with Section 3 of DOMA” unless Congress repeals it or the judiciary definitively says it is unconstitutional.

So with logic only lawyers were meant to appreciate, the administration will enforce a law it says is unconstitutional.

“They are still walking a very fine line,” said Gary Buseck, legal director of GLAD, the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, which is representing Gill and others in the lawsuit.

To add to the confusion, the Republican-controlled House, upset with Obama’s decision, has directed the chamber’s general counsel to defend DOMA. “This action by the House will ensure that this law’s constitutionality is decided by the courts, rather than by the president unilaterally,” Boehner said.

Dean Hara had a front row seat when Congress passed DOMA: His husband, Gerry Studds (D-Mass.) was a member of Congress at the time.

“I’ve seen it from the beginning,” Hara said. It doesn’t look any better over time. “I’ve been dealing with this since Gerry died in October of 2006.” For almost five years, Hara added, “I’ve been asking the federal government to recognize the relationship.”

The discrimination against gay marriage really hit home for Hara after the recent death of his father. When Hara applied to get his dad’s Social Security benefits for his mother, “it was very easy,” he said. “I could do it over the phone.”

But when he sought survivor benefits and Studds’s pension for himself, the repeated answer was no. “I would like to have access to the same benefits as any other surviving spouse of a federal employee who worked for the federal government for 25 years,” said Hara, who also is a former federal political appointee.

But he wasn’t surprised when his attempts to get the benefits were rejected: “I was there when DOMA was debated. I knew I would be discriminated against.”

A death also made the lack of benefits more pronounced for Gill. When a friend, a co-worker about the same age and with about the same amount of time on the job, died, it forced her to face a tough reality.

“If that had been me, my family would not have been provided for as her family was,” Gill said. “I was really struck by that.”

Her friend’s husband continues to benefit from his wife’s federal employment after her death.

“I thought that is so unfair,” Gill said. “I’ve been paying into my pension all these years. Marcelle would not get that.”

Links to the attorney general’s letter and the text of DOMA can be found with this column at washingtonpost.com/
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