Federal employees in same-sex unions look to Supreme Court to overturn DOMA

Joe Davidson
Columnist March 25, 2013

Karen Golinski’s name isn’t on the docket, yet it’s only right that she and her wife will be in the Supreme Court chamber Wednesday when the justices hear oral arguments on the Defense of Marriage Act, also known as DOMA.

Golinski and other federal employees have been in the forefront against the law that excludes, for federal purposes, same-sex couples from the definition of marriage. Like Golinski, others have won lower court decisions against this blatant, legalized discrimination.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

But unlike many others, Golinski has overcome DOMA. She forced the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to provide health insurance for her wife, Amy Cunninghis, through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

Yet her victory was a partial one. Not only did OPM say the decision to allow health benefits applied to no other same-sex marriages, the decision did not even extend other spousal benefits for Cunninghis, such as those connected to retirement.

While that limited victory sets them apart from some others who have challenged the law, their marriage sets them apart from the many same-sex couples who live in the majority of states where official recognition of their love — no matter how long, no matter how faithful — remains outlawed.


Lisa Polyak, right, poses for a portrait with her spouse, Gita Deane. (Courtesy of Lisa Polyak)

So, Golinski and Cunninghis plan to fly across the continent from their California home to witness Uncle Sam’s latest attempt to get this American experiment right. Fortunately, they won’t have to stand in line for days to get a seat as others have done. They were able to secure court tickets through their congresswoman, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House.

Ironically, Pelosi is a member of the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG), which is urging the Supreme Court to uphold DOMA. BLAG, which includes House leaders from both political parties, is misnamed for this case. Democrats strongly oppose the Republican legal effort supporting DOMA. The outside law firm Republicans hired for the case did not respond to a request for comment.

“Amy and I are profoundly grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of history in this way,” said Golinski, an attorney with the federal court system. “This case is historic. It will have a huge place in history.”

The nation should be grateful to Golinski and the others who continue to push and sacrifice for marriage equality. The nation also owes them an apology, not just for the benefits they’ve been denied and the additional money spent for things like insurance and legal fees.

Perhaps more important, Sam should beg their forgiveness for the indignity DOMA has heaped upon them.

It can be difficult for Lorilyn “Candy” Holmes to even talk about it.

She’s been a federal employee for 37 years, most of it with the Government Accountability Office in Washington. “I appreciate this opportunity to work for the federal government,” she said. “I have pride in my career and have worked hard all these years. And to feel like a second-class citizen, anger is not the word for me, it is disappointment. It is feeling that we’re just not the same, not good enough to be given the same dignity. . . . There is a certain amount of shame.”

Shame? That should rest on Sam’s shoulders, not hers.

“Anger is a word I would use to describe my feelings,” said Holmes’s wife, Darlene Garner, a minister. “Having grown up in the ’50s and ’60s and having experienced firsthand America’s apartheid, this takes me right back to where I was unable to receive the full benefits of my citizenship, but yet had to bear the full responsibilities of my citizenship.”

On the question of benefits, the conservative Heritage Foundation says “we can address specific concerns through specific policies without redefining marriage.”

But marriage has been redefined before, generally to make the institution stronger. Allowing more to marry, in this case same-sex couples, and to have those marriages fully recognized would strengthen the institution. Divorce weakens marriage, not more marriage.

“As with most ‘traditions,’ marriage has evolved over time, and even today means different things to different people,” says an e-mail from David A. Vignolo, a senior program manager with the Senate Office of the Sergeant at Arms. He is in a gay marriage. “Marriage has been an institution for transferring property (to include, at one time, the bride herself) and for settling conflicts. Marriage has been, and in many societies continues to be, between one man and many women. Marriage in the United States was, for many years, traditionally one man and one woman only of the same race.”

After Lisa Polyak and Gita Deane were allowed to marry, “I can’t tell you the psychic burden that has been taken away,” said Polyak, an Army civilian in Baltimore. “I don’t feel ashamed anymore.”

She and Deane have been together for three decades, but last year was the first year Polyak felt comfortable going as a couple to the office Christmas party. “There were so many things that were hard for us,” she said, recalling the “wall of silence and denial for most of my career.”

It wasn’t her colleagues or her supervisor who caused her pain. It was the institutionalized bias, the codified discrimination against a group of people for no good reason.

Now she feels “no more shame, no more stigma.”

Yet the struggle for equality is by no means won.

“DOMA is the big kahuna,” Polyak said. Overturning it is “almost too much to hope for out loud.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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