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End of DOMA raises concerns about lingering inequities

Social Security, military benefits could remain problematic after court decision



Supreme Court, gay news, Washington Blade
Supreme Court, gay marriage, marriage equality, Proposition 8, gay news, Washington Blade

Issues for married same-sex couples may remain even if the Supreme Court strikes down DOMA. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

While many same-sex couples throughout the country have high hopes that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act would mean their marriages would finally have legal status in the eyes of the federal government, certain problems may persist even if the court kills the law.

Depending on the scope of a Supreme Court ruling against Section 3 of DOMA, areas of the law in which couples may continue to face challenges include Social Security benefits — especially if a couple moves to a state that doesn’t recognize their marriages — as well as spousal benefits when one party of the couple is a member of the military, although the immigration issue preventing bi-national couples from staying together in the United States is expected to cease immediately.

Mary Bonauto, civil rights director for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, said prior to oral arguments one issue in a post-DOMA world is Social Security benefits if a same-sex couple marries in one state and moves to another where their union isn’t recognized. The survivor benefits given to spouses upon the death of their loved ones is among the more than 1,000 federal benefits withheld from married gay couples under DOMA.

“Say you are married in Massachusetts … and you apply for Social Security in Massachusetts, there would be no doubt with DOMA gone, that your spouse is a spouse for Social Security purposes,” Bonauto said. “However, should you relocate to Florida and apply for Social Security benefits there, it’s more of a problem because Social Security law is going to look at the validity of the marriage at the time you apply for benefits, so your state of residence at the time you apply really matters.”

Bonauto added the aftermath of a ruling striking down DOMA may create “a patchwork” that in some situations would make same-sex marriage dependent on their state validity. Ironing out this patchwork, she said, would take either more litigation, legislation or advocacy within the administration to make changes.

“The overwhelming majority of federal programs don’t specify what state law applies, so it may just be for some situations, a matter of some guidance coming for the agencies that say whether you’re married for a particular benefit,” Bonauto added. “That’s a very practical nuts-and-bolts thing that, you know, we don’t have the luxury of worrying about right now because DOMA is still on the books.”

Susan Silber, a lesbian Takoma Park-based lawyer who specializes in family law for gay couples, said a ruling could affect gay couples differently if the court strikes down DOMA but leaves the constitutional right to marry in the case against California’s Proposition 8 an open question.

“Let’s say a couple was married for 30 years, but because they couldn’t get married until two years ago, it would look technically like they’ve only been married for two years,” Silber said. “But when they’re now dividing up their property, will courts say, ‘Oh you’ve only been married two years, there’s not a lot of marital property to buy?’ or will the court recognize that longer-term relationships deserve some recognition and do some kind of equity based on the non-technical part.”

The Human Rights Campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment on lingering issues for married gay couples.

But the general agreement is that the Respect for Marriage Act, legislation designed to repeal DOMA, would address lingering problems regarding state validity because of the “certainty clause” in the bill. Under that provision, gay couples that legally marry in one jurisdiction would be assured federal benefits even if they move to another state that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage. The Respect for Marriage Act has yet to be introduced in the 113th Congress.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said during a Blade interview on Monday that she thinks the Respect for Marriage Act could see additional co-sponsors in the wake of so many legislators coming out for marriage equality, but certain bills may have to be rewritten in the aftermath of a court ruling striking DOMA before going forward.

“I think that trend is a very positive one, and, yet, once the Supreme Court in June announces its decision in these two cases, we’re going to have to read those decisions very carefully, understand their reach, impact and then go about the task of looking at their impact on pending legislation,” Baldwin said. “So it may mean that certain things need to be re-written. And that will be a joyous task if we made progress, but we still have a little bit more to go.”

Jon Davidson, legal director or Lambda Legal, was optimistic adjustments could be made, saying the federal government has had to determine previously whether to recognize certain marriages and disputed any notion advanced by DOMA proponents that overturning the law would create a legal mess.

“It’s very important that it be understood that that argument is baseless, as this issue has always existed without creating undue burdens for the federal government,” Davidson said. “For example, some states allow first cousins, or uncles and nieces and aunts and nephews, to marry, and some other states will not allow couples that closely related to marry and will not recognize marriages like those entered in other states as valid for purposes of their own state law.”

Another piece of legislation may be necessary to address the benefits issue for gay service members with same-sex spouses. Sections of U.S. code governing benefits for U.S. service members define marriage as one man, one woman independent of DOMA. Titles 10, 32 and 37 are controlled by DOMA in terms of their definition of marriage, but Title 38, which addresses veterans benefits, defines “spouse” and “surviving spouse” in similar terms and restricts the definitions of persons to the “opposite sex.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who sponsors legislation known as Charlie Morgan Act that would afford benefits to gay troops, said in a statement to the Blade that she’s prepared to push forward with the bill in the event that the Supreme Court ruling doesn’t address this issue.

“The Charlie Morgan Act would amend the definition of ‘spouse’ in the federal code in four areas and in turn grant same-sex military couples many benefits that they’ve rightfully earned,” Shaheen said. “Depending on how the Supreme Court rules on DOMA, legislation like this could still be necessary to ensure fairness and equality for all our men and women serving in uniform. Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, I will continue to work with my colleagues on behalf of our LGBT servicemen and women, and their families, because no one should be denied benefits due to their sexual orientation.”

There may be other difficulties as well. A blog posting Monday from National Public Radio’s Michelle Andrews speculates that married gay couples may have trouble covering their families with company insurance, although many businesses are pre-emptively addressing the issue.

“If a same-sex couple both lives and works in the District there may not be insurance difficulties,” Andrews writes. “But what if one of them works in Virginia, where same-sex marriage isn’t recognized? If a Virginia-based employer doesn’t voluntarily provide benefits to same-sex spouses, the employee might not be able to insure a spouse even though they’re legally married in the state where they live.”

But one issue that’s expected to immediately go away in the inability of gay Americans to sponsor their spouses for residency in the United States via a marriage-based green card application. Each time when asked to address the issue, the Obama administration has cited Section 3 of DOMA — and only Section 3 of DOMA — as the reason why sponsorship of a foreign spouse is unavailable for gay couples.

Lavi Soloway, a gay immigration attorney and founder of The DOMA Project, explained during a conference call last week that gay Americans should be able to sponsor their same-sex couples for residency in the United States immediately after the law is struck down.

“The moment the Defense of Marriage is struck down, green card petitions filed by same-sex married couples can be approved,” Soloway said. “There’s no other barrier; we’ve established that by filing 70 green card petitions over the last three years, we’ve established that with 40 appeals to the Board of Immigration Appeals, we’ve established that with 10 remanded cases from the Board of Immigration Appeals. The government’s position is that the law prevents same-sex couples from access only because of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. I’ve no expectation that the Obama administration will have any different opinion the day after DOMA is struck down — if that happens.”

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  1. EL

    April 11, 2013 at 9:05 pm

    What if the SCOTUS chickens out and decides to say that the Senate had no legal grounds to bring the case to them? They may dismiss the case without making a ruling striking down DOMA! Let’s hope they surprise us and do the right thing the first time for a change but even if DOMA is stricken you now conservatives will look for other ways to ignore it like they have in the case of Sodomy laws. Doesn’t Texas still have a sodomy law even though it was ruled unconstitutional a decade ago for example?

    All these legislative solutions to issues regarding benefits for same sex couples sound great but realistically no legislation to protect gay people at the Federal has ever succeeded except for repeal of DADT. With the GOP controlling the House its even less likely. We still don’t have ENDA and striking down DOMA still may mean many states may not have to recognize marriage equality.

    We may be forced to waste another generation before finally enough of the majority endorses these things we know to be right to get the legislation needed. Sadly many will have to suffer in between that time and some many not live long enough to benefit from it.

  2. David Hart

    April 12, 2013 at 1:25 am

    It is that very "patchwork" and the collateral mess that is going to effect nationwide marriage equality. Someone is going to mount a legal challenge which will wind up at the Supreme Court. It will stop the circumvention of "full faith and credit." I would guess that we are six years away. During this time, more and more states will become equal marriage states. Even my mightily whacked out state of Florida could be pushed into equality.

  3. Willie Millard

    April 13, 2013 at 8:55 pm

    Social Security is a Federal Program so I can’t see how a State can prevent someone from obtaining benefits. If you get married in NYC and move to Florida to retire like thousands of others Florida Law is irrelevant.

    Also Virginia passed a law ten years ago that prevented private companies from giving health benefits to unmarried couples. It was overturned thanks to AOL and other big employers. DOMA has nothing to with private companies offering benefits. Once Ken Cuccinelli comes to power, he may try to prevent benefits again.

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N.C. lieutenant governor compares gays to cow feces, maggots

“If homosexuality is of God, what purpose does it serve? What does it make? What does it create? It creates nothing,” Robinson said



North Carolina Lt. Governor Mark Robinson (Blade file photo)

WINSTON-SALEM – Speaking to parishioners at the Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem last Sunday, November 14, North Carolina Lt. Governor Mark Robinson attacked the LGBTQ+ community in remarks caught on the church’s livestreaming video on YouTube.

Robinson said in his sermon that he questioned the “purpose” of being gay; said heterosexual couples are “superior” to gay couples; and that he didn’t want to explain to his grandchildren why two men are kissing if they see that on television the Charlotte Observer reported.

The state’s Republican Lt. Governor then went on to compare being gay to “what the cows leave behind” as well as maggots and flies, who he said all serve a purpose in God’s creation. “If homosexuality is of God, what purpose does it serve? What does it make? What does it create? It creates nothing,” Robinson said.

Democratic lawmakers expressed their outrage on Twitter:

According to the Observer, “The video was distributed Friday by a pastor at St. John’s Metropolitan Community Church in Raleigh, the day before the Transgender Day of Remembrance. A protest rally was held Friday in front of Robinson’s office, but organizers also read the names of transgender people who have been killed.

This man’s theology and religious practices are not only flawed and a perversion of the Christian tenets; he places countless people at risk of violent attacks and even murder every time he opens his mouth,” said Vance Haywood, senior pastor at St. John’s, in a statement.

Robinson is expected to run for the governor’s chair in 2024. In another video of the sermon captured the Lt. Governor ranting in transphobic terms his opinion of the Trans community:

North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson (Twitter Video)

Video of remarks made by North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson courtesy of the Charlotte Observer.

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LGBTQ elder care facilities open nationwide, but discrimination persists

Advocates say seniors face challenges despite groundbreaking advances



The Ariadne Getty Foundation Senior Housing facility opened this week in Los Angeles. (Blade file photo)

Marsha Wetzel, an out lesbian, shared her life with her partner of 30 years, Judith Kahn, at the couple’s home in Illinois until Kahn died in 2013 of colon cancer.

As is the case with some same-sex couples who never married, Kahn’s family took legal possession of the couple’s home several years later, forcing Wetzel, who suffered from severe arthritis, to move into the Glen St. Andrew Living Community, a retirement and assisted living facility in Niles, Ill.

According to a lawsuit filed on her behalf in 2016 by the LGBTQ litigation group Lambda Legal, when word got out that Wetzel was a lesbian after she disclosed her sexual orientation to a fellow resident, she was called homophobic slurs, spat on, and assaulted on several occasions by other residents of the facility. The lawsuit, which later resulted in a court ruling in Wetzel’s favor, charged that officials at the Glen St. Andrew facility illegally failed to take action to prevent Wetzel from being subjected to abuse and threats by fellow residents and retaliated against her when she complained.

Lambda Legal announced one year ago, on Nov. 20, 2020, that Wetzel passed away at the age of 73 of natural causes after a landmark 2018 appeals court ruling in her favor affirmed that residential facilities such as the one in which she lived are legally responsible for the safety of tenant residents.

“Marsha spent the rest of her days in a senior living community where she was out and affirmed,” said Lambda Legal attorney Karen Loewy, who represented Wetzel in the lawsuit.

Advocates for LGBTQ seniors were hopeful that the 2018 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruling in the Wetzel case would speed up the gradual but steady advances in the rights of LGBTQ elders in long-term care facilities and in society in general.

A short time later, the New York City-based national LGBTQ elder advocacy group SAGE expanded its programs providing cultural competency training for the nation’s long-term care residential facilities. And in some cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, LGBTQ specific retirement and long-term care facilities began to open to provide LGBTQ elders with a wide range of “wrap around” services in addition to a safe place to live.

But LGBTQ elder advocates were taken aback in October of this year when news surfaced that transgender U.S. Army veteran Lisa Oakley, 68, was denied placement in more than two-dozen long-term care facilities in Colorado in 2020 and earlier this year.

“When they found out I was transgender, a lot of the facilities didn’t want me,” Oakley told USA Today. “A lot of transgender people, I’m sure, face the same thing,” she said. “We’re humans, just like everybody else.” 

Oakley told other media outlets her ordeal in trying to gain admission to a residential care facility began in October 2020, when she became unable to care for herself due to complications from diabetes. Her first choice was a facility in her hometown in rural Craig, Colo., where she had lived for the previous 25 years. She believes that facility turned her down because of her gender identity.

A social worker who assisted in Oakley’s applications for long-term care facilities said the facility in Craig said Oakley would have to be placed in a private room, which was at the time unavailable, “because she still has her ‘boy parts’ and cannot be placed with a woman” in a shared room. 

Many other Colorado facilities to which Oakley applied for admission, according to social worker Cori Martin-Crawford, cited the COVID pandemic as the reason for not accepting new residents. But as COVID related restrictions began to subside, other facilities continued to deny Oakley admission.

With Martin-Crawford’s help, Oakley finally found a facility that is LGBTQ supportive in Grand Junction, Colo., which is nearly three hours away from her hometown of Craig, where she had hoped to remain.

LGBTQ activists expressed concern that the discrimination that Oakley faced took place in the state of Colorado, which has a state law that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Experts familiar with long-term care facilities for older adults have said many private elder care facilities can get around state LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws by claiming other reasons for turning down an LGBTQ person.

Michael Adams, the CEO of SAGE, told the Blade that the wide range of programs and initiatives put in place by SAGE and other groups advocating for LGBTQ elders in recent years have resulted in significant changes in support of LGBTQ seniors.

“It is the case now that in almost all states there are one or more elder care facilities that have been trained through our SAGECare program,” Adams said. “But it’s nowhere near what it needs to be,” he said. “It needs to be that there are welcoming elder care facilities in every single community in this country” for LGBTQ elders.

Adams was referring to the SAGE program started recently called SAGECare that arranges for employees and other officials at elder care facilities throughout the country to receive LGBTQ competency training. The facilities that participate in the program are designated “SAGECare credentialed,” and are included in SAGE database lists available to LGBTQ elders looking for a safe facility in which to reside.

SAGE spokesperson Christina Da Costa provided the Blade with data showing there have been 136,975 professionals trained at a total of 617 SAGECare credentialed organizations nationwide. Out of 617 organizations, 172 are residential communities. Also, out of the total of 617 are 167 Area Agencies on Aging, Aging and Disability Resource Centers, Senior Centers, and senior Ombudsman offices.

Da Costa said 278 of the credentialed entities that have received the SAGECare training throughout the country are “other aging focused nonprofit and for-profit businesses.”

According to SAGE, there are 12 SAGECare credentialed elder care facilities or service providers operating in the D.C. metropolitan area, with two located in D.C. One of the D.C. facilities is Ingleside at Rock Creek, located in Northwest D.C., which is a residential facility. The other is Options for Senior America, a company that provides in-home care services for seniors, including seniors living in D.C.

A SAGE list of the D.C.-area SAGECare credentialed facilities shows that three are in Rockville, Md.; two are in Gaithersburg, Md.; and one each are in Bethesda, Md.; Arlington, Va.; and Alexandria, Va. The list shows that one of them that provides services to elders in the D.C. area is based in North Carolina.

SAGE has a separate list of the 15 elder care residential facilities in the U.S. created specifically to serve LGBTQ residents. 

None are in D.C., Maryland, or Virginia. However, SAGE says it has been working in cooperation with Mary’s House for Older Adults, a D.C.-based LGBTQ organization that advocates for LGBTQ seniors and is in the process of opening LGBTQ elder residential facilities in D.C. and others in the surrounding suburbs.

Mary’s House founder and CEO Dr. Imani Woody couldn’t immediately be reached to determine when the organization expects to open its first residential facility. 

While a residential LGBTQ elder facility has yet to open in the D.C. area, activists note that in addition to Mary’s House, services and amenities for LGBTQ elders in the area are currently being provided by the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community and Whitman-Walker Health, the LGBTQ supportive health center, which also has a legal services branch.

Adams of SAGE said the Los Angeles LGBTQ Center opened the nation’s first LGBTQ elder residential facility over eight years ago called Triangle Square. He said the L.A. Center opened a second LGBTQ elder residential facility a short time later. And this week, the L.A. Center announced it has opened a third LGBTQ elder residential facility in Hollywood that is part of a larger “intergenerational campus” that will bring together LGBTQ seniors and LGBTQ youth. 

SAGE, meanwhile, operates two LGBTQ elder long-term care residential facilities in New York City, one in Brooklyn called the Stonewall House and one in the Bronx called Pride House. 

The other U.S. cities with LGBTQ elder residential facilities include: Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco (which has two such facilities), San Diego, Houston, Fort Lauderdale, and Islip, N.Y.

Adams said the LGBTQ elder residential facilities range in size, with the largest – New York’s Stonewall House – having 143 apartments that can accommodate 200 residents. He said others vary from 40 or 50 residential units to 120.

Advocates for LGBTQ elders point to what they consider another important breakthrough for LGBTQ elders this year in the release of a joint SAGE-Human Rights Campaign Long-Term Care Equality Index report for 2021. Adams said the report is the first of what could become an annual report and rating and scorecard for long-term care elder residential facilities and other elder facilities. 

The 2021 report includes a self-reporting assessment of elder care facilities that the facilities themselves completed through a questionnaire in which many disclosed they have LGBTQ nondiscrimination policies for elders around admission to the facility and for practices by staff for those residing in their facilities.

The report includes a chart showing that 158 elder care facilities in 31 states responded positively to the outreach to them by organizers of the Long-Term Care Equality Index.

“We are thrilled to be working with SAGE and to be working with the Human Rights Campaign who are developing the Long-Term Care Equality Index,” said Nii-Quartelai Quartey, who serves as senior adviser and LGBTQ liaison for the American Association of Retired Persons or AARP.

“There is a great deal of work that we’re doing in the area of LGBTQ older adults nationwide,” Quartey told the Blade. “And AARP has been engaged with the LGBTQ community nationwide for many years now,” he said.

“In recent years, we’ve turned up the volume in working more closely with organizations like SAGE and Lambda Legal and the Victory Fund Institute, the Center for Black Equity, the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance, and the Hispanic Federation.”

According to Quartey, a recent AARP study of LGBTQ elders called Maintaining Dignity shows that longstanding concerns of discrimination remain despite the many advances in support for LGBTQ seniors in recent years.

He said a survey that was part of the study found that 67 percent of the LGBTQ elders who responded, “were concerned about neglect in a long-term care setting.” Over 60 percent feared verbal or physical harassment in a long-term care setting and over half “felt forced to hide or deny their identity” as an LGBTQ person, Quartey said.

Another recent survey of LGBTQ elders conducted by SAGE asking them how they feel about the use of the word “queer” in descriptions of LGBTQ people yielded findings that came as a surprise to some, according to Adams. A large majority of those surveyed from across the country said they are “comfortable at this point using that word and reclaiming that word, which is different from what we had heard historically,” Adams said.

He said in response to those findings SAGE will now as an organization gradually shift to using the term LGBTQ instead of its past practice of using LGBT.

Although Congress has yet to pass the Equality Act, last year under the Trump Administration, Congress acted in a rare bipartisan way to approve the required five-year reauthorization of the U.S. Older Americans Act with new language supportive of LGBTQ older adults. President Trump signed the legislation.

The language includes a mandate for outreach to and reporting about services provided to LGBTQ older adults in federally funded programs. It also opens the way for LGBTQ older adults to be designated in a category of “greatest social need.” Under that category, older adults receive a higher priority in the allocation of resources by the federal government.

“We’ve come a long way, but we still have a way to go to get over the finish line,” said the AARP’s Quartey. “And aside from passing legislation federally and on the state and local level, we absolutely need to continue the hard work of changing hearts and minds,” he said.

Longtime gay activist and writer Brian McNaught, whose latest book, “On Being Gay and Gray – Our Stories, Gifts, and the Meaning of Our Lives,” was just released, says his own very informal survey of LGBTQ elders found there is a need for intimacy that may be too controversial for the establishment LGBTQ elder groups.

“I’m a SAGE volunteer and the 81-year-old man with whom I was working after his husband of 47 years died, said after his grieving process, ‘I want to be hugged and kissed. Does that make me a bad person?’”

McNaught told the Blade he assured the man those feelings do not make him a bad person. McNaught said the man’s comment prompted him to conduct further research, in which he found that some gay male elders in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area who often need assisted living support would like to patronize gay bathhouses or seek the services of an escort agency. He said he determined that any LGBTQ elder group providing such services would trigger “a huge uproar of protests” and most likely a loss of funding.

“We don’t want to talk about sexuality and aging,” McNaught said.

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Former VOA director nominated to head U.S. Agency for Global Media

Previous CEO’s actions threatened LGBTQ internet freedom



(Public domain photo)

President Biden on Monday nominated Amanda Bennett, the former head of Voice of America and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, investigative journalist and editor, to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

“I am honored by this nomination,” Bennett told Voice of America. “If confirmed, I will be so proud to work with all the dedicated journalists at USAGM who are doing the critical and difficult work around the world of upholding and demonstrating the value of a free press.”

The agency operates independently from the U.S. government and oversees five different entities that include Voice of America, broadcasting platforms and the Open Technology Fund. The fund is an independent non-profit organization that focuses on advancing global internet freedom by providing internet access, digital privacy tutorials, privacy enhancement and security tools like encryption.

These tools have been integral in preserving internet freedom for LGBTQ people abroad, especially in places where it’s unsafe or illegal to be LGBTQ.

Bennett, 69, was named VOA director in 2016 and resigned from her post in June 2020 after conservative documentary filmmaker Michael Pack was confirmed as the agency’s CEO during the Trump administration.

Under Pack’s tenure, several technology freedom experts said the former CEO thwarted the Open Technology Fund’s efforts abroad by freezing funds. Pack also ignored a House subpoena for an oversight hearing that was meant for him to address mass firings, withholding congressionally approved funds and other questionable activities.

Pack stepped down at Biden’s request in January, and the president named Kelu Chao, a VOA veteran journalist, as Pack’s replacement and interim CEO.

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