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.
- American Military Partners Association (AMPA): The nation’s premier resource and support network for LGBT military partners, spouses and their families. Founded by the partners of active duty servicemembers, AMPA has grown to nearly 4,000 members with thousands more supporters and is proud to be leading the effort to connect, support, honor, and serve our modern military families.
- American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER): A non-profit, non-partisan, chapter-based Veterans Service Organization of active, reserve, and veteran service members dedicated to full and equal rights and equitable treatment for all present and former members of the U.S. Armed Forces, especially the LGBT current and prior military personnel who have been historically disenfranchised by armed forces policy and discriminatory laws governing military service and benefits.
- OutServe/SLDN: A non-partisan association of actively serving LGBT military personnel offering legal services and acting as a watchdog and policy organization dedicated to bringing about full LGBT equality to America's military and ending all forms of discrimination and harassment of military personnel on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
- Service members, Partners, Allies for Respect and Tolerance for All (SPARTA): The mission of this organization is to advocate for and support our actively serving LGBT military members and veterans and their families while working to ensure the military provides equal opportunity for all service members regardless of race, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.
- College tuition and fee payments paid to the school on the student’s behalf.
- A monthly housing allowance.
- A books and supplies stipend of up to $1,000 per year.
Policy & Legal UpdatesSeptember 30 - October 6, 2013
On 27 September 2013, Public Religion Research Institute surveyed 1,563 Hispanic Americans from a representative sample of U.S. adults regarding same-gender civil marriage, and reported that 55% favor it, 43% do not, with 2% unaccounted for. Also, regarding candidate preferences, likely Hispanic voters prefer Democrats 58%, Republicans 28%, and others 12%, with 2% unaccounted for. • Survey Details
On 4 October 2013, Quinnipiac University surveyed 1,776 American adults on same-gender civil marriage, and reported that among registered voters, 57% support it, 36% do not, and 6% do not know or give no answer. Among Roman Catholics (where no clergy support same-gender civil marriage at all), 60% of churchgoers support it, 31% don't, and 9% do not know or give no answer. • Survey Details
On 30 September 2013, U.S. Representative Adam Smith (D- Washington) and Senator Carl Levin (D-Michigan), the top Democrats on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, told the U.S. Department of Defense to ensure that military spouse benefits are issued to all armed forces personnel in same-gender civil marriages, including states which have denied some benefits applications, such as IN, LA, MS, OK, SC, and TX. • MEUSA Summary • Survey Details
MEUSA Summary • News Source PENNSYLVANIA • On 1 October 2013, in Pennsylvania Health Department v. Montgomery County Court Clerk Bruce Hanes, the county appealed to the PA Supreme Court a lower court ruling that halted the issuance of same-gender civil marriage licenses after 174 licenses were issued. • MEUSA Summary • News Source PENNSYLVANIA • On 26 September 2013, in Cara Palladino & Isabelle Barker v. PA Governor Corbett et al., a couple filed a federal suit to force PA to recognize their 2005 MA marriage. The Equality Forum suit raises two new federal constitutional questions: whether states must respect laws from other states, and whether citizens can travel between states without losing rights. • MEUSA Summary • News Source WEST VIRGINIA • On 1 October 2013, in Casie Jo McGee, et al. v. Cabell County Clerk Karen Cole, et al., Fairness WV and Lambda Legal filed a federal lawsuit for three couples challenging the state law that bans marriage equality. • MEUSA Summary • News Source NEW JERSEY • On 30 September 2013, in Garden State Equality, et al. v. NJ Attorney General Paula Dow, et al., Lambertville, NJ mayor David DelVecchio committed to performing NJ’s first same-gender civil marriage as soon as the ruling goes into effect on 21 October 2013. • MEUSA Summary • News Source NEW JERSEY • On 1 October 2013, in Garden State Equality, et al. v. NJ Attorney General Paula Dow, et al., NJ Acting Attorney General John Hoffman appealed directly to the NJ Supreme Court (bypassing the NJ appeals court), and asked for expedited review. Hoffman also asked the Superior Court to delay implementation of its ruling until after the Supreme Court review, which Lambda Legal opposes. • MEUSA Summary • News Source VIRGINIA • On 30 September 2013, in Joanne Harris, et al. v. Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell et al., the ACLU, ACLU Virginia, and Lambda Legal filed a federal class action lawsuit for two couples seeking full marriage equality for all VA residents, including couples married elsewhere. On 30 September 2013, ACLU and Lambda Legal asked for a summary judgment. • MEUSA Summary • News Source KENTUCKY • On 1 October 2013, in Gregory Bourke & Michael Deleon v. Kentucky, KY Attorney General Clay Barkley asked a federal court to dismiss the case, claiming that the plaintiffs have no standing to bring this lawsuit. • MEUSA Summary • News Source TEXAS • On 9 September 2013, 16 TX state representatives told the TX Military Forces to: (1) stop denying equal pay and benefits to all same-gender married military couples at all TX National Guard facilities, (2) stop denying membership in family readiness groups, and (3) stop denying participation in marriage enrichment retreats. • MEUSA Summary • News Source TEXAS • On 13 September 2013, in Alicia Butler & Judith Chedville vs. Texas, Lambda Legal told the TX Military Forces that since 3 September 2013 it has been unlawful to deny equal federal pay and benefits to any same-gender married military couple, and the TX ban on same-gender civil marriage does not exempt TX from compliance. Chedville is an Army nurse and Iraq war veteran, and a 1st Lieutenant in the Army National Guard. • MEUSA Summary • News Source VIRGINIA • On 18 July 2013, in Timothy Bostic, et al. vs. VA State Registrar Janet Rainey, et al., a gay couple filed a federal lawsuit challenging VA’s 2006 ban on same-gender marriage, joined by a lesbian couple seeking to have their 2008 CA marriage recognized in VA. On 30 September 2013, AFER (American Foundation for Equal Rights), the sole sponsor of the lawsuit which defeated CA Proposition 8, joined this lawsuit to win full federal marriage equality nationwide. • MEUSA Summary • News Source VIRGINIA • On 3 October 2013, in Timothy Bostic, et al. vs. VA State Registrar Janet Rainey, et al., VA Attorney General (and candidate for governor) Ken Cucinelli filed a brief in federal court arguing that same-gender civil marriage should be banned because: (1) some religious beliefs from the 1500s also ban it; (2) some dictionaries still describe marriage as only between mixed-gender couples; and (3) some mixed-gender couples procreate. • MEUSA Summary • News Source NEW JERSEY • On 4 October 2013, in Garden State Equality, et al. v. NJ Attorney General Paula Dow, et al., plaintiffs told the court that NJ has failed to prove it risks any irreparable harm if it issues licenses, and has failed to prove that it is likely to win its appeal, and therefore asked the court to not delay the implementation of its ruling. • MEUSA Summary • News Source
MEUSA Summary • News Source PENNSYLVANIA • On 3 October 2013, state Representative Brian Sims (D) introduced House Bill 1686, the Pennsylvania Marriage Equality Act, to legalize same-gender civil marriage. The bill is supported by 32 lawmakers (31 Democrats, 1 Republican). • MEUSA Summary • News Source NEW JERSEY • On 2 October 2013, Assemblyman Chris Brown (R) reversed his 2012 vote, and now supports marriage equality. To override the governor’s 2012 veto by mid-January 2014, only 10 more lawmakers are needed (3 Senators to reach 27 out of 40 and 7 Assemblymen to reach 54 out of 80). • MEUSA Summary • News Source
MEUSA Summary • News Source OREGON • On 4 October 2013, the Oregon Business Association, which represents over 300 businesses, endorsed the Freedom-to-Marry & Religious Protection Initiative, following the Portland Business Alliance. Volunteers have collected over 90,000 signatures toward placing the issue on the November 2014 ballot. • MEUSA Summary • News Source
Send questions and comments to: NFlaherty@MarriageEquality.org.