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Fighting back against discrimination: Four stories
DOMA: Compounding the tragedy of loss
|Dr. Thea Spyer and Edith Windsor|
In the early 1950s, Dr. Thea Spyer was expelled from college when a campus security guard saw her kiss another woman.
At about the same time, Edith Windsor was marrying a man because she did not believe it was possible for her to live openly as a lesbian.
A few years later, after Windsor’s divorce, the two women met, fell in love and got engaged. But it had to be a semi-secret engagement. To avoid difficult questions, Dr. Spyer proposed with a diamond broach instead of a ring.
They prospered in their careers, but Windsor had to be especially careful. She worked in computer science for the government and for a government contractor, IBM, at a time when, by executive order, the federal government prohibited contractors from employing openly gay men or lesbians.
Marriage, of course was out of the question. So theirs was a 40 year engagement until, with Dr. Spyer dying and time running out, they married in Canada.
Upon her wife's death, Edith Windsor was so grief stricken she nearly died herself, of what her doctors called “broken heart syndrome.” She survived, only to see the federal government rub salt in her wounds – in the form of a huge inheritance tax bill. Legally-recognized spouses are exempt from such bills.
But the federal government is barred from recognizing Windsor’s marriage – by the so-called Defense of Marriage Act.
Windsor fought back. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, she sued. And on March 27, the Supreme Court will hear Edith Windsor’s challenge to DOMA.[i] [i]
Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo
Proposition 8: When you can’t marry, it’s so much harder on the children
Christine Allen and Ann Brown have lived together for 27 years. They finally married during the brief period when it was legal in California, before the passage of Proposition 8. So their marriage still is valid.
But they didn’t have that option when they were raising their children before they were married. Allen told Marriage Equality USA what that was like:
I can’t begin to describe the utter frustration when you are holding a feverish infant with whooping cough in the middle of the night, or your seven-year-old boy sobbing in pain from breaking his arm in a bicycle fall, or your four-year-old girl bleeding from accidentally putting her arm through a window, and emergency room staff are debating who the ‘real’ mother is and whether or not you have the ‘right’ to get the child treated. If you are married, you automatically have a legal right to that child and things proceed in a normal manner.
“The frustration of going to parent-teacher conferences and having the teacher only look at and speak to one of us.
“And living with the constant fear of losing custody of a child is absolutely grinding, even when it is a daily fact of your life and you are ‘used’ to it and under no immediate threat. We had five kids and the day our youngest turned 18, Ann and I felt like a boulder had been lifted from our shoulders. The relief was amazing! If we had been married nobody would be a single lesbian parent – we’d be a unit, we’d be legally and socially recognized. …
But now there’ a new frustration:
“[A]s a low-income older couple we’re hampered by not having the choice to move outside of California. We’d love to move to a state where we have relatives, but we don’t dare move where marriage equality doesn’t exist. It costs so much to live here [in California], but at least we are recognized at the state level as a couple. Our mobility is severely restricted because federal marriage equality doesn’t exist.”[ii]
Soon the Supreme Court will decide where there will be marriage equality in America.
The culture of discrimination: adding incalculable pain
Beyond the details of any statute, laws like DOMA and Propostion 8 help breed a culture of discrimination, that can infect all aspects of American life. Case in point: Tracy Johnson.
When Johnson’s wife died in Afghanistan, the army seemed to go out of its way to make the loss even more painful.
Tracy had to fight to sit in the front pew at the funeral. She had to fight to be at the private ceremony where she received a flag. She had to fight to be in the military escort that brought Donna home.
All of those common courtesies and comforts were made harder for Tracy Johnson for just one reason: Like Donna, Tracy is a woman.
Were Tracy a man, these benefits would have been routine. But because she is a woman, it took the determined efforts of Tracy and her mother-in-law before she could these small opportunities to ease her grief. After hearing their story on NPR , it’s hard to imagine anyone really wanting to perpetuate that culture.[iii]
[i] United States v. Windsor, No. 12-307, Brief on the Merits for Respondent Edith Schlain Windsor: http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/supreme_court_preview/briefs-v2/12-307_resp_merits.authcheckdam.pdf
[ii] Marriage Equality USA, A Conversation with Christine Allen, http://www.marriageequality.org/Conversation_Christine_Allen
[iii] Storycorps: In Loving Memory Of A Wife, Daughter And Fallen Soldier, Feb. 16, 2013: http://www.npr.org/2013/02/16/172135162/in-loving-memory-of-a-wife-daughter-and-fallen-soldier