I never thought marrying Maggie would set us on the path to be one of the faces for Marriage Equality outside of our circles. Sure, we experienced fear & a sense of disappointment that people were attacking us personally & OUR family after Prop 8 was passed a few days after we married 1 Nov 2008. We had some anxiety as we awaited the decision from the CA State Supreme Court to continue to recognize our marriage & the marriage of the other 18,000 same sex couples who married during the 142 days it was legal. We had discussions, debates & arguments with some family members & members of our communities as we wanted to make sure ALL Californians had the same rights & responsibilities of marriage. But we otherwise continued to live our lives, love each other, & be active in communities we loved. We were just like any other newlywed couple.
I received a phone call from my doctor a few months after our nuptials. Some abnormal lesions were discovered in my brain during an MRI. After more tests, more evaluations, 2 spinal taps, dozens of neurological visits & a trip to the ER 11 hrs before a good friend's wedding, we had confirmation. This was MS. It was determined to be caused by my military service. MS robs people of movement, & can affect any part daily life, from speech to vision, balance to memory, loss of motor function to loss of independence. It affects the brain & Central Nervous System. There is no cure.
There is only medication to slow down the disease's progression. And I was scared, because having this disease brought up what I saw my Mom go through as she fought MS for 20yrs. It also reminded me of how my stepfather took care of Mom when she started going downhill, & how my Mom took care of him in life & after she died at 51 because they were married. My Pop is still benefiting from my Mom's pension, Social Security benefits, & health insurance because they were married to each other.
Like my Mom, I wanted to make sure I had my end of life matters in order so Maggie would be provided for when something happened to me. That sounds sobering for most 38 yr olds, but I had to do this a few times when I was in the Army from the time I was 19 until I was 30. As a disabled veteran, I knew that my wife would be eligible for benefits I earned because of my military service. I wanted Maggie buried with me in a Veteran's Cemetery when the time came. But I found out that if something happened to me, my wife wouldn't be recognized as such by the country I fought to defend. While I was alive, & even in death, the Defense of Marriage Act would deny her the VA benefits any heterosexual spouse of a veteran receives. My wife couldn't be buried with me at any Veterans Cemetery, even here in California, because they took federal monies to help with the Cemetery. They had to follow federal law.
I was angry. Really, we couldn't be buried together?! It's not like the neighbors are going to walk out, or people who come to pay their respects to their loved ones are going to boycott-everyone's DEAD! Why should this even matter? Maggie was going to be taking care of me as this disease progressed, & making sure she had the same benefits as any other spouse was the least I could do for her. I had to fight for her because she is the best thing that's happened to me. And she deserves everything I can give her.
It was time to funnel my anger to make a change. With the initial help from another Army Veteran named Wendi, I asked the VA to recognize my wife as my dependent. It was the fastest denial letter I had ever received or heard of. Two weeks after I sent my request, it was denied. A month after that, I appealed that decision. It was denied again, & the VA asked who would be representing me as my legal counsel if I wanted to continue this fight. I took this as a challenge, & got a civil rights powerhouse stand up for our family.
With the help of Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) & WilmerHale, we filed a federal lawsuit against section 3 of DOMA & Title 38 of the VA so my wife would be treated as any other married spouse of a disabled veteran would on 1 February 2012. We were taken aback when we actually saw our lawsuit, "Cooper-Harris vs USA". We shared our story with the news, media, social networks why marriage mattered, why it made no sense to treat our marriage differently than any other marriage because we are 2 women. And our family & friends rallied around us, sharing our story & why they supported our fight. If we had to be the face of this inequity to get the conversation started & get things changed, so be it.
Our lawsuit ended about a month after the SCOTUS decision on Edie Windsor's case [July 2013]. The US District Court ruled that the VA had to treat my wife as my dependent since section 3 of DOMA was ruled unconstitutional 29 August 2013. Attorney General Eric Holder cited our case along with the SCOTUS decision on Windsor as reason they would not continue to uphold Title 38's definition of spouse for veterans in same sex marriage in a letter to Congress in September 2013. The Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) of the House of Representatives cited our case as dropping their defending DOMA in federal court. And we finally got the letter from the VA February 2014, 2yrs after we started this fight, that officially recognizes Maggie as my wife.
I know we still have a ways to go. Other veterans in same sex marriages living in non marriage equality states are in limbo as the Dept of Justice & VA work out how to provide benefits, since the VA is still going by where the couple resides instead of where the marriage took place for VA benefits. We still have 30+ US States that deny marriage to same sex couples.
Our story is one of many. And the more that our stories are heard, the more our families will benefit. It's about the love we share, the love I have for my fellow veterans, & the love I have for this country. Because we all are part of this larger family, & we are here to help one another.
Maggie and Tracey Cooper-Harris reside in Southern, California, where they have both served as active and effective advocates for marriage equality. We acknowledge and thank Tracey for her service to our country.
Not every couple celebrates their first and 25th anniversaries in the same year. Then again, not every couple has navigated a roller coaster quite like the one Michael Sabatino and Robert Voorheis have – that of legal recognition of same gender relationships both as activists and a committed couple.
After a short courtship, the couple held their first nuptials in the form of a commitment ceremony in 1979. “We knew it wasn’t something that was done but it was something that was important to us,” says Robert. “Our gay friends couldn’t wrap their heads around two men having a ceremony. People in the (LGBT) community were having trouble with it.”
Friends and family also had various reactions. No one from Robert’s family attended their commitment ceremony although, he says, “Michael was accepted as a member of the family.” While Michael’s mother was open to attending, the two had kept the ceremony a secret from Michael’s father. They knew of no way for the mother to be away for so long without arousing suspicion. Michael points out, however, that some of his cousins attended, and one of his maternal aunts gave them a gift. “She accepted the ceremony as a wedding and gave us the same gift she had given to all of her nieces and nephews at their weddings,” he says.
Robert and Michael took another interim step in 2002, becoming the second couple in Westchester County (in New York State) to register as domestic partners. “Domestic partnership was a non-entity,” says Robert, “though we were thrilled it was happening. This was the first step to full marriage equality.” Never-the-less, the couple did not treat their domestic partnership as anything other than a legality and held no ceremony to mark the occasion.
Dealing with the palpable discomfort among friends within the LGBT community after their 1979 commitment ceremony would prove to be a valuable experience. The couple encountered substantial resistance among established LGBT organizations during their early participation in the movement for marriage equality.
Michael remembers the push back in the early years of campaigning for marriage equality. “All of the major organizations were against us. The first inkling that we were getting somewhere was when Massachusetts got it, or maybe when Canada approved marriage. I think that, to us, was one of the turning points,” he says, both for them and the established LGBT organizations.
“I happened to be on a business trip, that Robert had joined me on, and Robert had just gone back home,” says Michael, reflecting back on the day when Canada joined the ranks of marriage equality countries. “I remained in Canada. I called him back and asked if he wanted to get married.”
Then, in 2003, 24 years after their commitment ceremony, Michael and Robert legally married each other in Niagara Falls, Canada, in front of approximately 50 guests. This time, rather than issues pertaining to cultural acceptance, it was geographical distance that kept the event from being even larger. “My cousin who, we thought, would never accept the invitation was the first to accept,” notes Michael. “My mom gave us away.”
Their wedding in Canada added impetus to their quest for full equality at home. The couple, represented by Lambda Legal, intervened on behalf of the Westchester County Executive, who was sued by an outside party for recognizing out-of-state marriages like theirs. The case, Godfrey vs. Spano, would go to New York’s highest court and set the precedent for statewide legal recognition of gay couples married in other jurisdictions.
In addition to their early involvement as litigants, Michael and Robert were among the original founders of Marriage Equality New York, which later would merge with Marriage Equality USA. “I think we were one of only two couples among the early participants, the other being Cathy Marino Thomas and her wife, Sheila,” says Robert. “The rest were all single. There were 10 in the core group.” Although the two have partaken in more than their fair share of rallies, their emphasis has always been on education and engagement. “Education is the key — you have to make people aware of the issues,” says Robert.
Once married, the two quickly realized their work as activists and educators was far from finished. Upon returning from their wedding, the priest at their local Catholic parish ejected them from the choir. “Making people realize you cannot separate the church from this issue,” says Robert, was one of key elements the two considered critical. “LGBT groups backed away from us, characterizing it as a religious issue. But it is not just a religious issue, it is a civil rights issue. LGBT groups experienced in lobbying told us at MENY that we could not ask our legislators what their position was on marriage for same sex couples. It was too controversial.”
In spite of opposition from all sides, Robert says that, from the beginning, “We knew we were going to ask about one question -- marriage. MENY sent out a statewide questionnaire. Most legislators ignored them. Of those who returned them, there were certainly more ‘no’s’ than ‘yes’s.’” Picking up where his husband left off, Michael adds that, “within a year after Canada, they (LGBT organizations) were starting to embrace the idea. MENY coined the term ‘marriage equality.’”
The couple also lays claim to another milestone in the marriage equality movement, having been instrumental in making the connections to get Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer to Canada for their wedding. Windsor vs. U.S. would become the landmark decision requiring the federal government to recognize marriages performed in marriage equality states. The opinion cited Godfrey vs. Spano, in which Robert and Michael had been lead participants to prove their marriage was recognized in New York State.
Since Windsor, when same gender couples could finally receive all of the rights, responsibilities and privileges of marriage afforded by federal law, the couple has contemplated the reality of true marriage equality. Discussing the reality of a potentially larger federal income tax liability because of the marriage penalty, Michael notes, “That is one of the responsibilities of marriage, to pay that marriage penalty. I was happy to pay those taxes because I am now an equal citizen. It comes with the whole enchilada. You want to be treated equally, that’s part of the whole enchilada. That’s what comes with the rights and responsibilities of marriage. You can’t just take the pluses and eliminate the minuses. But you now also have the rights that we have been denied for so long.”
With equal marriage rights having been secured in New York and much of the country, Robert will be stepping down from the MEUSA board. "Each of us owes a huge debt of gratitude to Robert and Michael for their work and personal sacrifice in making both MEUSA and the entire marriage equality movement a success,” says MEUSA Executive Director Brian Silva. "Their successful lawsuit early in our struggle was critical in bringing recognition for LGBTQ New York families. And Robert's leadership on our Board as we have merged, transitioned and grown in these past few years will be sorely missed."
The State of Utah’s stunning admissions in last week’s oral argument before the Tenth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals and in briefs filed with the court make one thing abundantly clear: the state should drop its appeal of the federal district court’s ruling last December in favor of marriage equality. We’ll never forget the joy we felt seeing over a thousand LGBT couples dash to their local clerk’s offices in Salt Lake City and other Utah environs during the winter 2013 holiday season before the district court’s order was stayed. It’s time for those weddings to begin again.
The State of Utah put forth many baseless, unpersuasive, and convoluted arguments before the court. The one that perhaps struck us most was the State’s concession that children of same-sex parents would likely be better off if their parents were able to be married. But instead of caring for those children by embracing the right of LGBT couples to marry, the State callously said that their “principal concern” in the case is “the children of heterosexual parents,” leaving the children of LGBT parents in the dust. When questioned at oral argument, Utah’s counsel matter-of-factly wrote off the needs of children of same-sex couples by saying that laws involve “tradeoffs.” Not only does their argument suggest a remarkable lack of human empathy, but it is also unsound as a matter of law.
One thing that rings loud and clear from last summer’s United States Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor striking down section 3 of DOMA is that Justice Kennedy and the majority of the Supreme Court are very concerned about the effects that discriminatory marriage laws have on LGBT families, especially the children on LGBT parents. The Court held that DOMA “humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples….mak[ing] it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.” Further, the Court stated that “DOMA instructs … all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others.”
The saddest aspect of Utah’s legal argument is that it fails to recognize that marriage equality is not a zero-sum game. Ending the exclusion of LGBT couples from marriage robs no one else of their freedom to marry. Far from hurting anyone else, protecting and caring for kids of LGBT parents benefits everyone, not just LGBT families. Recognizing our common humanity lies at the heart of the marriage equality movement. In an attempt to appear compassionate, Utah wrote in its brief that it “respects and values [LGBT] citizens and their children as … equal before the law ….” If that’s the case, we urge the State of Utah to drop its appeal, end the marriage ban, and pass legislation to make full LGBT equality a reality in Utah.
By MEUSA National Media Director Stuart Gaffney and MEUSA Director of Legal & Policy John Lewis
This article originally appeared in SF Bay Times, April 17, 2014: http://sfbaytimes.com/utah-should-drop-its-appeal-and-let-the-salt-lake-city-weddings-begin-again/
This week marks the ten-year anniversary of the beginning of San Francisco’s “Winter of Love,” in which 4,037 same-sex couples married at San Francisco City Hall from February 12 to March 11, 2004. Those extraordinary days took the movement for marriage equality in California to a whole new level and inspired thousands of people to get involved. We now have the freedom to marry in our state. What the “Winter of Love” sparked remains highly significant as we continue the struggle for full LGBTIQ equality.
We began our involvement with the marriage equality movement on February 12, 2004, when we got married at City Hall. The experience was especially profound for us because it gave us the feeling of equality as members of the LGBTIQ community. From the beginning, we have always considered the movement for the freedom to marry to be linked inextricably to the struggle for LGBTIQ equality in all aspects of our lives.
The Winter of Love ultimately led to the California Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in In Re Marriage Cases, establishing marriage equality in California before Proposition 8 and recognizing that commonality of purpose. It established that any California law discriminating against lesbian and gay people in any aspect of their lives, not just marriage, was presumptively unconstitutional unless the government could provide the most compelling of reasons for the law. The decision protects lesbian and gay people in myriad aspects of their lives from education to employment to the criminal justice system.
As public attention and opponents’ efforts focused on marriage, the California Legislature also quietly enacted laws establishing many important rights and protections other than marriage for LGBTIQ people. The 2010 Proposition 8 trial presented testimony about the gross harm that so-called gay “conversion” therapy exacts on lesbian and gay people, and the California Legislature went on to ban such therapy for minors.
Soon we may be faced with another challenge at the ballot box in California regarding LGBTIQ rights. On January 1, 2014, the School Success and Opportunity Act (Assembly Bill 1266) took effect. It requires that all California public schools respect students’ gender identity and ensures that students can fully participate in all school activities and facilities that match their gender identity. Opponents (many of whom backed Prop. 8) collected petition signatures to attempt to repeal the law on the November 2014 statewide ballot.
The state is now conducting a full count of signatures, and the referendum may or may not qualify for the ballot. If it does, we must share our lives and tell our personal stories to show the world, as we did during the Winter of Love, that laws excluding LGBTIQ people harm real people – in this case, transgender students.
We must remember that discrimination in any aspect of our lives and against any members of the community affects us all. And we must invoke the spirit and enthusiasm that the Winter of Love evoked to defeat the referendum if it appears on the ballot, or prevail in whatever challenge lies ahead for our community.
By MEUSA National Media Director Stuart Gaffney and MEUSA Director of Legal & Policy John Lewis
This article originally appeared in SF Bay Times, February 6, 2014: http://sfbaytimes.com/the-relevance-of-the-winter-of-love-to-the-entire-lgbtiq-community-today/