I lost my wife, Lesly, to cancer less than a week before the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and restored marriage equality to California last year. Those few days between her death and the ruling have made my life and the lives of our two children so much more painful. The Supreme Court can help, but Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently voiced doubts about the urgency of resolving marriage equality nationwide.
Since the Court struck down the DOMA last summer, nearly every federal court to rule on same-sex marriage bans has overturned them. There are now appeals from cases in five states pending review at our highest court, but Justice Ginsburg recently said that there may be “no need for us to rush” to hear them. Unless appellate courts are split on marriage equality, she said, lower judges should be permitted to do their work.
But there is urgency, and my story helps explain why we can’t wait. The consequences of delay can be tragic.
I first met Lesly almost 30 years ago and couldn’t wait to share the rest of my life with her. We experienced all of our most important moments together, from the birth of our children, Clare and Ian, to the day before Lesly died, when we held a wedding ceremony so we could feel married if only for a day.
But with love came great loss. On June 20, 2013, Lesly passed away from cancer. One year later, my family is still moving through the fog that comes with losing a wife and a mother. There is a hole in our family. And, more to the point, there are legal problems that have required me to continue fighting for our marriage through the worst time in my life.
You see, as a lesbian couple, our story has not neatly unfolded against our nation’s legal journey to marriage equality. Our marriage is now valid in the eyes of California and the federal government, but not in the eyes of Lesly’s longtime employer, FedEx, which has declared me ineligible to receive her hard-earned pension benefit.
In 2003, Lesly and I registered as domestic partners in California, the earliest a same-sex couple could do so in the state. Under that law, we were entitled to the same legal rights, protections and benefits as spouses in California. Five years later, in November of 2008, Proposition 8 explicitly banned same-sex couples from getting married in California.
When Lesly was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, we vowed to fight it as a family. But, in June 2013 Lesly’s condition suddenly worsened, and we had to prepare ourselves for what would come next. That’s when we discovered that FedEx — where Lesly faithfully worked for 25 years, even after being diagnosed with uterine cancer — would not recognize me as a “spouse” eligible to receive Lesly’s pension benefits. It was a devastating blow in Lesly’s final days.
One week after Lesly’s death, when the Supreme Court declared DOMA unconstitutional and ended Prop 8, I struggled to feel happy. I could only think about how much I wished Lesly had been around to witness that monumental day.
Though the California Superior Court later validated our marriage, I have not yet received Lesly’s pension benefits with FedEx. In the eyes of FedEx’s pension plan, Lesly was unmarried the day she died. FedEx’s pension plan will only recognize same-sex marriages performed after the Supreme Court struck down DOMA. After a lengthy back and forth pleading with FedEx, my appeal was ultimately denied.
Surviving spouses in heterosexual marriages simply submit a form and start receiving benefits. I have had to hire lawyers, and will have to file a lawsuit if I want to continue fighting for the benefits that Lesly earned. Despite the efforts of our lawyers, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, my family is in a precarious financial position. Without Lesly’s pension, I am struggling to afford college tuition for the first of our two children.
This is the urgency of marriage equality. There are thousands of other couples and families across America facing the same uncertainty I face. Each day they must live with enormous risks. Even for those living in marriage-equality states today, the majority of America still treats gay couples and their families as second-class citizens. Thousands and thousands of people are living each day navigating a patchwork of marriage laws where the rules change at every state border.
Someday we will celebrate the moment our nation achieved marriage equality. But let there be no doubt: it will make a difference to LGBT families whether that day is next year, or the year after, or the year after that. There is urgency for the Supreme Court to address marriage equality every moment, every day.