Advocates and public policy officials on Monday discussed the impact they say the Defense of Marriage Act continues to have on older same-sex couples during a panel at the National Press Club in D.C.
“We know that LGBT older adults want to marry for the same reasons that all other Americans want to marry,” Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) Executive Director Michael Adams said during the SAGE and Freedom to Marry-sponsored gathering. “It’s a basic freedom at should not be denied to any committed couple.”
Democratic political strategist Hilary Rosen moderated the panel that featured Sarah Byrne of the Alliance for Retired Americans, National Senior Citizens Law Center Executive Director Paul Nathanson, Web Phillips of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, Stacy Sanders of the Medicare Rights Center and New York attorney Thomas Sciacca. National Hispanic Council on Aging CEO Yanira Cruz and Imani Woody, founder of Mary’s House for Older Adults, which has eight units of housing for LGBT Washingtonians over 60, also took part.
Panelists noted same-sex couples are denied Social Security spousal and survivor benefits and Medicaid spousal impoverishment protections because of DOMA.
Phillips stressed the roughly 250,000 children who are raised by gay and lesbian parents also “lose benefits” because they can only claim Social Security benefits from their biological parent — as opposed to either parent if they were a married heterosexual couple. Sciacca noted same-sex couples face additional challenges around state laws that allow biological next of kin to challenge a person’s will and permit only blood relatives to make burial or cremation arrangements upon a person’s death.
Woody said she must pay almost $700 a month in additional health care costs because she is unable to get onto the insurance plan her spouse has through her employer.
“This is a burden for us,” she said. “This is a terrible burden on our lives; one that heterosexual married couples do not share.”
The National Press Club panel took place ahead of this month’s U.S. Supreme Court rulings on cases that challenge both DOMA and California’s Proposition 8 that banned same-sex marriage in the state in 2008.
Edith “Edie” Windsor challenged DOMA after she paid $363,000 in federal estate taxes after Thea Spyer, her partner of more than 40 years whom she married in Canada in 2007, passed away in 2009.
“In the midst of my grief I realized that the federal government was treating us as strangers,” Windsor told reporters outside the Supreme Court in March after the justices heard oral arguments in her case. “I paid a humongous estate tax. And it means selling a lot of stuff to do it, and it wasn’t easy.”
Adams noted the Windsor case is “emblematic” of the inequalities older same-sex couples face because of DOMA.
“Edie was treated in a really unconscionable way in terms of discriminatory treatment under our tax code,” he said.
California Congresswoman Linda Sánchez last year introduced a bill – the Social Security Equality Act – that would extend the same survivor and pension benefits heterosexual receive to gay couples and their families. It has yet to be reintroduced during this Congress.
Lawmakers are expected to reintroduce a DOMA repeal measure until the Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the law.
“[We support] the repeal of DOMA, invalidation of DOMA or whatever else needs to be done to eliminate the barriers that would provide equal protection and equal benefits to all America’s families,” Phillips said. “We regard this as a matter of simple fairness.”