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ACLU unveils trio of post-DOMA marriage lawsuits

Plans announced for litigation in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia

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Maureen, Mary Beth, gay news, Washington Blade
Maureen, Mary Beth, gay news, Washington Blade

Maureen Hennessey (right) with her late spouse Mary Beth is a widow plaintiff in a Pennsylvania lawsuit seeking marriage equality (Photo courtesy of ACLU Pennsylvania).

For lesbian widow Maureen Hennessey, winning same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania isn’t just about obtaining Social Security and tax benefits, but the dignity of having her relationship with her late partner of 29 years recognized by her state.

“There are some financial changes that legalizing marriage in Pennsylvania would bring about, but even just the whole respect and relationship being validated, that’s the whole part of it,” Hennessey said. “That’s what really would make a difference.”

Hennessey, 53, is one of 11 plaintiff couples in a federal lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union was set to file on Tuesday asking the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania to overturn the Keystone State’s statutory ban on same-sex marriage. The complaint can be found here.

Building off the win at the U.S. Supreme Court in the case it filed against the Defense of Marriage Act on behalf of lesbian widow Edith Windsor, the ACLU is filing the Pennsylvania lawsuit as part of a group of three new lawsuits that seek to advance marriage equality in different parts of the country.

In addition to the Pennsylvania lawsuit, named Whitewood v. Corbett, the ACLU is also undertaking cases seeking marriage equality in North Carolina and Virginia.

The North Carolina lawsuit is amending the complaint in the case of Fisher-Borne v. Smith, a lawsuit on behalf of six plaintiff couples who previously sought second-parent adoption rights. The ACLU was also set to amend its lawsuit in the North Carolina case on Tuesday, although a copy of the complaint wasn’t immediately available.

Marcie Fisher-Borne, Chantelle Fisher-Borne, gay news, Washington Blade, gay marriage, same-sex marriage, marriage equality

Marcie and Chantelle Fisher-Borne (Photo courtesy of the ACLU)

Chantelle Fisher-Borne, a 38-year-old non-profit consultant and one-half of the lead plaintiff couple in the case, said there are many reasons why she wants her union to her partner of 15 years recognized as a marriage in North Carolina, which just last year passed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

“Some of them involve benefits such as health insurance, or the same issues we have around the parenting things we have with our children, being able to really have the legal recognition we have in our hearts as a married couple,” Fisher-Borne said. “It provides a kind of safety that most couples and parents want and many have but we don’t.”

In Virginia, the lawsuit is still in its planning phases — no plaintiffs have yet been chosen for the case — although the ACLU anticipates filing it later this summer.

James Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT Project, said his organization is filing the lawsuits to add its voice to the seven lawsuits already pending in federal court seeking a nationwide ruling in favor of marriage equality.

“We are adding our voices to those cases in bringing plaintiffs with compelling stories with decades of commitment and the ways in which they’re harmed by not being able to marry,” Esseks said. “And we’re hoping to bring their stories both to the American public and to courts that have a good shot at giving the issues a fair hearing.”

The Pennsylvania lawsuit, which challenges the state’s ban on same-sex marriage on the basis that it violates plaintiffs’ due process and equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, emphasizes the loss of benefits for the couples and their children.

The 52-page complaint in the Pennsylvania case also draws on the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor as legal precedent for why the federal court should strike down state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

“The fact that a discriminatory law is long-standing does not immunize it from constitutional scrutiny,” the complaint states. “And the Supreme Court has made clear that the law cannot, directly or indirectly, give effect to private biases and has expressly rejected moral disapproval of marriage for same-sex couples as a legitimate basis for discriminatory treatment of lesbian and gay couples.”

The plaintiff couples can be broken down into two categories. Six are seeking the right to marry in Pennsylvania, including Deb and Susan Whitewood, who gave their names to the lawsuit. Five other couples — like Hennessey, who lost her spouse Mary Beth McIntyre to lung cancer after having wed in Massachusetts — are looking to have their legal marriages recognized in Pennsylvania.

The couples include lawyers, a truck driver, a doctor, veterans, a stay-at-home mom and retirees. One couple is represented in the lawsuit by their children who are still minors and designated as A.W. and K.W.

Hennessey, who had three children with McIntyre and is expecting a fourth grandchild soon, said she’s particularly seeking Social Security survivor benefits, which are still in question after the DOMA ruling because she lives in state that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage.

“I’m 53 years old, and Mary Beth was the primary bread-winner in the family,” Hennessey said. “So, her Social Security would be way higher than mine, unless I win the lottery.”

For Marcie Fisher-Bourne, who works for the American Cancer Society, the need for the legal recognition of her union became particularly salient on the day she gave birth to her daughter five years ago. The couple encountered problems even though they were legally married in D.C.

“When I transferred to the unit for recovery at one in the morning, the nurse looks at Chantelle and says, ‘Why is she here? Where is her paperwork?’ Marcie Fisher-Bourne said. “So when you ask, why will it matter here in North Carolina, to me, that’s a really good example. On that day, on the day that our daughter was born, I would not have had to fish through my emergency suitcase to find health care power of attorney papers so my spouse could be beside me when our first child was born. So, yes, it matters.”

And there’s optimism in the air plaintiffs will able to win marriage equality, particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision finding DOMA unconstitutional. Hennessey predicted the lawsuit is “definitely going to succeed.”

“I don’t think it’ll happen overnight, but I know that the legislators in Harrisburg are probably want to drag their feet as much as possible,” she said. “But we’re going to push it forward, and I think that the people, I think that the population is ready to accept same-sex marriages, and I think that it will happen.”

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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court upholds conversion therapy ban in Washington State

Kavanaugh, Alito, Thomas wanted to consider challenge to ban

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U.S. Supreme Court (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday allowed Washington State to continue enforcing its ban on conversion therapy for minors, another blow to the dangerous and discredited practice of endeavoring to change a patient’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

With a 6-3 vote declining to hear a challenge brought by the anti-LGBTQ Alliance Defending Freedom, the Supreme Court allowed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s decision protecting the law to remain in effect.

Conservative Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas voted to take up the case, with Thomas writing a five-page dissent in which he argued “licensed counselors cannot voice anything other than the state-approved opinion on minors with gender dysphoria without facing punishment.”

“In recent years, 20 States and the District of Columbia have adopted laws prohibiting or restricting the practice of conversion therapy,” Alito wrote in a brief dissent. “It is beyond dispute that these laws restrict speech, and all restrictions on speech merit careful scrutiny.”

The law in Washington allows providers to discuss conversion therapy with patients younger than 18 or recommend that it be administered by a religious counselor, but prohibits licensed therapists from performing it.

Major scientific and medical groups as well as LGBTQ and other civil rights organizations support conversion therapy bans for minors, which have passed in 22 states and D.C. according to the Movement Advancement Project.

Judge Ronald M. Gould, writing for the three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit, argued in his decision on the case challenging Washington’s ban that, “States do not lose the power to regulate the safety of medical treatments performed under the authority of a state license merely because those treatments are implemented through speech rather than through scalpel.”  

Gould noted that Brian Tingley, a family counselor and advocate for conversion therapy who challenged the law, was still able to communicate about conversion therapy, express his personal views on the subject to his patients, practice conversion therapy on adults, and refer minors to counselors not licensed by the state.

“For decades,” wrote Washington state Attorney General Robert W. Ferguson in a brief, “this court has held that states can regulate conduct by licensed professionals, even if the regulations incidentally impact speech.” 

“Conversion therapy,” he added, “puts minors at risk of serious, long-lasting harms, including increased risks of suicide and depression.”

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The White House

Country’s first nonbinary state lawmaker participates in Gaza ceasefire hunger strike

Oklahoma state Rep. Mauree Turner is Muslim

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Oklahoma state Rep. Mauree Turner in front of the White House on Nov. 30, 2023, while taking part in a hunger strike for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The country’s first nonbinary state lawmaker last week participated in a hunger strike for a permanent ceasefire in the Gaza Strip that took place in front of the White House.

Oklahoma state Rep. Mauree Turner took part in the 5-day action alongside actress Cynthia Nixon, Virginia state Del. Sam Rasoul, Delaware state Rep. Madinah Wilson-Anton, New York State Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani, Michigan state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, former New York Congressional candidate Rana Abdelhamid, Muslim Girl.com Founder Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, Adalah Justice Project Director of Strategy and Communications Sumaya Awad and Linda Sarsour. The U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace, Democratic Socialists of America, IfNotNowMovement, Dream Defenders, the Institute for Middle East Understanding and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee are the organizations that either participated in the hunger strike or endorsed it. 

“This is the place where you should be,” Turner told the Washington Blade on Nov. 30 while they were standing in front of the White House.

Turner is from Ardmore, Okla., and has been a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives since 2021. They are the first Muslim person elected to the Oklahoma Legislature.

“Oklahoma is no stranger to genocide, displacement, uprooting communities — beautiful, vibrant, vulnerable communities — just because they could,” said Turner, referring to the treatment of Native Americans in what became Oklahoma during the 1800s and early 1900s. “Specifically as a Muslim and as an Oklahoman it is my duty to be here.”

The hunger strike took place nearly two months after Hamas, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization, launched a surprise attack against communities in southern Israel from Gaza.

The Israeli government has said roughly 1,200 people have been killed, including at least 260 people who Hamas militants murdered at an all-night music festival in a kibbutz near the border between Israel and Gaza. The Israeli government also says more than 5,000 people have been injured in the country since the war began and Hamas militants kidnapped more than 200 others.

Yarden Roman-Gat, whose gay brother, Gili Roman, spoke with the Washington Blade on Oct. 30 in D.C., is one of the 105 people who Hamas released during a truce with Israel that began on Nov. 24 and ended on Dec. 1.

The Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry says more than 15,000 people have died in the enclave since the war began. Israel after Oct. 7 cut electricity and water to Gaza and stopped most food and fuel shipments.

“It’s absolutely wild to think about what is happening to the Palestinian people in Gaza and in the West Bank,” said Turner.

Turner noted the war began two days before Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

“By October the 10th, when the world was really seeing what was happening in Gaza,” they said. “So many people who had celebrated specifically Indigenous Peoples’ Day had also sided with the Israeli government over the indigenous people of the land.”

‘The death of civilians is absolutely horrible’

Turner in response to the Blade’s question about the Israelis who militants killed on Oct. 7 emphatically said “the death of civilians is absolutely horrible.” Turner added they “cannot stress enough that when we back people into a corner, we don’t know what will happen.”

“The truth of the matter is our governments, our governmental officials do not have to put people in a corner,” said Turner.

Turner was particularly critical of the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza after Oct. 7.

“I don’t think there’s any place where a government has the power to shut off right water, food, healthcare supplies, things like that,” they said. “It’s just in doing so against a population that has 2 million people … that’s not anyone looking for equitability or justice. That is genocide against its people.”

Turner noted Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt continues to publicly support Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Turner told the Blade “when we oppress people over decades and decades … we cannot, we don’t get to cherry pick” or “we don’t get to tone police or however they are fighting back to be heard, to be, to live for vibrant lives.”

“We cannot tell oppressed people how to hurt out loud,” they said, specifically referring to Palestinian people. “We can create governments that care for people from a community standpoint who are thinking creatively about how we provide aid and support and we can ask our elected officials (members Congress, President Joe Biden, state and local officials) to teach truth. We can ask them to continuously make sure that we are providing the best care and understanding of the situations at hand. We can ask them to do a ceasefire to stop sending aid to the Israeli government and emboldening their military forces.”

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Climate change threatens LGBTQ resort communities

Provincetown, Cape Cod, other destinations face ‘existential’ challenge

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The beach in Fire Island Pines, N.Y., on New York's Fire Island has been the scene of extreme erosion in recent years. (Photo courtesy Actum Vice President Savannah Farrell)

As the world reckons with worsening impacts of climate change, some LGBTQ communities and destinations are grappling with the “existential” threat posed by the crisis.

The United Nations’ annual climate conference will take place in the United Arab Emirates through Dec. 12. LGBTQ climate activists, however, are concerned about representation at COP28 because the meeting is taking place in Dubai, which is in a country that criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual relations.

President Joe Biden on Nov. 14 delivered a statement on climate change policy during his administration. Biden spoke on the American Rescue Plan, the Fifth National Climate Assessment, new transparency about the state of the country’s climate and more. 

Biden emphasized “advancing environmental justice for disadvantaged communities, because they’re the ones always left behind.” Evidence of this trend can be found in LGBTQ destinations across the country.

Julian Cyr, a gay Massachusetts state senator who represents Provincetown and other towns on Cape Cod, recognizes the state’s importance to the LGBTQ community, stating that “according to the Census, it may be the highest per capita density of LGBTQ+ people certainly in the United States, and perhaps internationally.”

Provincetown, a popular gay destination located at the tip of Cape Cod, is facing worsening storms as climate change advances. These storms reshape the natural environment as well as damage the built environment. A series of Nor’easters in 2018 flooded Provincetown, damaging homes, businesses and the town hall. 

“The climate crisis is … already forcing us to do a lot of planning and reevaluation of coastal resilience of our built environment,” said Cyr. 

All hope isn’t lost yet for Massachusetts destinations. 

Then-Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, in 2022 introduced the Climate Roadmap, which aims for zero carbon emissions by 2050. The state also is building the country’s first offshore wind farm, Vineyard Wind. 

Cyr said citizens can push for climate change legislation by making the urgency known to their local elected officials.  

“This is truly existential for coastal, low-lying communities like those that I represent,” said Cyr. “It’s really important that constituents weigh in with their elected officials and make sure that they know that this issue is crucially important. I don’t know how we not solve this issue.”

Experts are seeing similar effects in nearby LGBTQ destinations, such as Cape Cod.

“One thing that we do see already is the effect of storms,” said Mark Adams, a retired Cape Cod National Seashore cartographer. “Those storms are the signal of sea level rise.”

Adams said that as a result of rising temperatures and new, intense storms, he is also starting to see damaged ecosystems, unnatural migration patterns of local wildlife, and planting-zones moving northward. Adams told the Washington Blade these changing ecological relationships may mean an uncertain future for life along the coast: the self-sustaining lifestyle and seafood could be at risk as ocean acidification puts shellfish in danger. 

“If you can’t get oysters and clams, that would really change life on Cape Cod,” he said. 

In addition to the damage caused by storms, Cape Cod’s natural environment is also facing the threat of littering and plastic pollution. While the area’s beaches keep tourism alive, fishing gear and marine debris washing up on the shore are growing concerns for the community. 

Adams said this is where the choices individuals make to avoid plastics will make a huge difference in the future of these communities. 

“There are little choices we can make to get off of the petroleum stream,” he said.

A car in floodwaters in Miami Beach, Fla., in July 2018. Climate change has made Miami Beach and other coastal cities more susceptible to flooding. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Aspen Gay Ski Week adapts to warmer winters

Aspen Gay Ski Week was the first gay ski week, and it is the largest such event in the world, and is the only non-profit gay ski week.

Rising temperatures and short winters are growing concerns for destinations like Aspen, Colo., that depend on snow, according to AspenOUT Executive Director Kevin McManamon.

“As our seasons get shorter … we have to plan for the future,” McManamon said.

Colorado has also faced increased forest fires in recent years.

The Marshall Fire in 2021 devastated the state, destroying buildings and killing two people. Increasingly dry conditions feed into these fires, which will mean more impacts on humans, nature, and infrastructure.

McManamon nevertheless said he is optimistic about Aspen Gay Ski Week’s future due to the organization’s forward thinking. One such initiative is its involvement with Protect Our Winters, an organization that advocates for protecting the environment with the support of the outdoor sports community. 

“The cool part about being here in Aspen and having a great relationship with Aspen Skiing Company is that they are … on the leading edge of climate change,” said McManamon. 

Stronger storms threaten Fire Island

Fire Island Pines on New York’s Fire Island has been a safe haven for the LGBTQ community since the 1950s.

Fire Island Pines Property Owners’ Association President Henry Robin notes natural disasters cause more damage in the community as opposed to those that are across the Great South Bay on Long Island because Fire Island is a “barrier island.”

“When Superstorm Sandy hit, or when a Nor’easter hits, or a hurricane hits, the brunt of the storm is first taken by the Pines,” said Robin. 

Robin said “the Pines is thriving” just over 11 years since Sandy, but there is no climate change response. The federal government implemented a beach restoration project for Fire Island, and later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created an engineered beach for the Pines. 

Robin also formed three task forces — comprised of community members — to address local concerns, many of which were climate related, according to focus groups and a survey. Robin is also hoping to introduce recycling programs and solar energy to the Pines. 

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