Defending gay marriage

A Massachusetts legal advocacy group sues to secure some of the federal rights for same-sex couples denied by DOMA.

Published March 3, 2009 2:35PM (EST)

Remember that long, exciting gay rights agenda President Obama posted on his Web site only a few hours after his inauguration? Well, a mere six weeks later, the LGBT community has begun to make progress on a number of its tenets. On Thursday, California's state Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether Proposition 8 should have gone through the Legislature -- which opposes the same-sex marriage ban -- before being put to a referendum. And in Congress on Monday, Rep. Ellen Tauscher proposed repealing the military's moronic "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

But perhaps the most exciting development thus far is a direct challenge to 1996's wildly discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). On Tuesday, the Massachusetts legal advocacy group Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) will file suit to secure some federal benefits for gay couples who have tied the knot in states that allow same-sex marriage. While, so far, this only includes Massachusetts and Connecticut, eight other states are currently working toward legislation allowing same-sex marriage. The benefits GLAD seeks include "equal protection as applied to Social Security, federal income tax, federal employees and retirees, and the issuance of passports." As the New York Times notes, these are only a few of the 1,100 rights and benefits conferred by the federal government on married couples -- but they are also among the most visible and important issues for same-sex couples. "We picked programs every American can relate to," Mary L. Bonauto, GLAD's civil rights project director, told the Times.

Eight same-sex couples and three widowers, all of whom were legally married in Massachusetts, comprise GLAD's plaintiffs. Included in the suit are a pair of married lesbians who estimate they would have saved over $20,000 by filing joint tax returns if the federal government recognized their union, as well as 78-year-old Herbert Burtis, who was unable to collect Social Security benefits after his spouse of four years and partner of 60 died last year. The highest-profile participant in the suit is Dean Hara, who has been denied the right to receive a congressional pension on behalf of his late spouse, Rep. Gerry E. Stubbs, the first openly gay member of Congress.

Legal scholars seem unsure about whether GLAD's lawsuit will succeed. But Burtis, who does not believe he'll win the case, says he's happy to participate regardless of the results. "At least I can be part of what I think would be a historic moment to help someone in a future generation get equality under the law," he told the Times. Here's hoping the court gives Burtis the surprise of his life.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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