Charlie Morgan should have been dead by now.
“I was to have expired last month, in October,” said the 47-year-old career soldier who has battled Stage IV breast cancer for four years and was given less than six months to live when she voluntarily stopped chemotherapy in April. “But I’m still here.”
She hopes to live to see the United States Supreme Court do right by her and her family.
You see, as a chief warrant officer in the New Hampshire National Guard, Morgan is eligible for all the benefits a grateful nation can provide its military service members. But as a lesbian married to another woman, her wife will not receive the survivor benefits other military widows get and which she will need to help raise their daughter Casey, 5, after she is gone.
The federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) forbids it.
“I’m praying that they take it up soon,” Morgan said in a phone interview from her home in New Durham, N.H. “It’s my motivation for staying alive. I really need to be alive when they actually do overturn DOMA, otherwise Karen is not guaranteed anything.”
The wheels of justice turn slowly but there are signs that the nation is ready to pick up the pace when it comes to LGBT rights.
New Hampshire is one of nine states and the District of Columbia where gay marriage has been legalized and this month voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington became the first to affirm marriage equality in ballot measures and will soon join them. Yet none of the more than 1,100 federal benefits enjoyed by heterosexual married couples are available to gay couples in those states, including survivor benefits, because of DOMA.
A year after the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy came to an end — and Morgan came out on MSNBC — Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg predicted that DOMA would reach the high court at the end of the current term.
Federal appeals courts in Boston and New York have ruled that the 1996 law passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton and which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman, is unconstitutional. The judges reasoned that it was unfair and discriminatory to deny federal marriage benefits, such as being able to file joint tax returns or receive Social Security survivor benefits, to legally married same-sex couples but give them to their straight counterparts.
Morgan is among eight military couples who are plaintiffs in one of the many lawsuits challenging DOMA. They want the same benefits as the civilians but also the right to receive veterans survivor benefits and to be buried together in a national cemetery. While four other lawsuits brought by civilians are likely to come before the court first, either alone or combined, the ultimate decision will likely apply to military personnel as well.
In preparation for what they consider the inevitable, President Obama and his attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., early last year ordered the Department of Justice to quit defending DOMA. That prompted House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to fire back from the right side of his caucus, vowing that the House Republicans would defend DOMA even if the White House wouldn’t.
In February, Morgan asked to meet with Boehner’s staff, and later got her chance to explain how the death benefits her own mother received after her father was killed in an accident while serving on active duty during the Vietnam War helped “buy food and keep a roof over our head when I was growing up.” That was all, she said, she wanted for Karen and their daughter after serving her country for nearly 20 years on active and guard duty.
Charlie and Karen, a part-time special education teacher, have been legally joined for 12 years, when they entered a civil union in Vermont. They married last year in New Hampshire.
Just before they tied the knot, I met them in Las Vegas during the first summit of openly gay and lesbian service members. They told me they wanted more than financial equality with heterosexual soldiers and their families. They wanted to feel like they belonged. Perhaps nothing hurt them more, they said, than when Karen was barred from attending a welcome home ceremony when Charlie returned from a nine-month deployment in Kuwait.
Now, the women are never separated. Morgan is in hospice care and on what is likely her last convalescent leave from the Guard. Since she decided to “live life rather than be in bed sick all the time,” the couple have been to the White House to meet Obama, taken Casey to Disney World, visited family in Pennsylvania and traveled to Guatemala and Peru.
But no trip would bring more joy to Morgan than one to the steps of the Supreme Court on the day DOMA is no more.
Today, as they celebrate Thanksgiving with their families, the tumors pressing on Morgan’s chest are painful but a morphine patch makes it tolerable. Morgan says she’s low on energy, “not doing much, hanging out in the house, being taken care of by Karen.”
Casey, who is in kindergarten, “knows momma is sick,” Morgan said, and is praying she won’t die.
Morgan will die, though. She just doesn’t want it to be before DOMA is dead, too, so that Karen can be taken care of like the spouses of all her fellow soldiers.
Andrea Stone is a veteran journalist who has worked at the Huffington Post, AOL News and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter at @andreastonez