Today, we move one step closer to what is sure to be a momentous event in American history: on March 27, the Supreme Court will hear the case of United States v. Windsor, a powerful legal challenge to the notorious Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). More specifically, the Windsor lawsuit challenges Section 3 of DOMA, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing the marriages of same-sex couples even though they are already legally married under state law. SAGE is among more than 40 groups that today filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Edie Windsor’s case; we’re joined in our brief by the American Society on Aging, National Hispanic Council on Aging, National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives, National Senior Citizens Law Center, and Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.
SAGE has been proud to support Edie during every step of her challenge to DOMA. Some background: Edie and her spouse Thea Spyer were a committed couple who got engaged in 1967 and were finally able to legally marry 40 years later. (If you’re a Netflix member, you can watch a very moving documentary about their life together.) When Thea passed away after a long battle with multiple sclerosis, Edie was forced to pay a large estate tax that she would not have had to pay had she been married to a man. Not willing to remain silent about this gross injustice, Edie sued the federal government for failing to recognize her marriage. On October 18, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan sided with Edie, ruling that DOMA unconstitutionally discriminates against married same-sex couples. Shortly thereafter, on December 7, the Supreme Court announced that it would take and decide Edie’s case.
Edie has been involved with SAGE for many years as a volunteer leader. She served on our Board of Directors and has led many SAGE activities over the years. In 2010 SAGE presented Edie with our Lifetime Achievement Award for her longtime activism in the LGBT aging field. We love Edie for so many reasons, including her relentless optimism and determination. (We get to see Edie in action many Wednesdays at The SAGE Center during our Nintendo Wii bowling hour—she’s a fierce competitor!)
SAGE has so many reasons to be proud as we watch 83-year-old Edie lead the way in the fight for justice and marriage equality. Her case shines a spotlight on how DOMA operates to deny older same-sex couples key supports that other elders can take for granted, i.e., equal access to federal benefits, programs and protections that provide safety and support for older Americans. From Social Security and Medicare to 401(k)s and pensions to veterans benefits and retiree benefits like spousal health care coverage, partnered LGBT elders face unconscionable discrimination that has real and lasting impacts on their financial security and health and well-being.
LGBT older people face unique challenges that are not shared by their heterosexual peers, including a lifetime of discrimination and stigma that in many instances has disrupted their lives, their connections with their families of origin, and their ability to earn a living and save for retirement. LGBT elders are generally less financially secure than American elders as whole, and more prone to social isolation and poor mental and physical health. Yet, despite their greater need, they are not able to take full advantage of the federal programs designed to protect older Americans, many of which are built on the presumption of marriage and therefore provide greater protection and benefits to married couples.
Many LGBT older people cannot marry in their home states. But even in the states that recognize marriage for same-sex couples, DOMA prevents legally married spouses of the same sex from accessing benefits and protections that are afforded to their heterosexual counterparts. In addition to discrimination in estate taxes as in Edie’s case, specific examples of how this affects LGBT older couples include:
- Social Security, the most important financial safety net program for older and disabled Americans. DOMA’s definition of “spouse” bars same-sex spouses from receiving Social Security spousal, survivor and death benefits.
- Family and Medical Leave Act, which entitles eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave from work to care for a spouse but denies that benefit to same-sex couples.
- Retiree health and survivorship benefits, which often are available to heterosexual spouses but are unavailable to legally married same-sex couples because of DOMA.
The Supreme Court will make its decision by the end of June. SAGE is rooting for the court to rule in Edie’s favor by striking down DOMA. (We’re also rooting for the Court to strike down Proposition 8, the discriminatory ballot initiative that banned marriage equality in California.) We know we’re not alone. In fact, a strong majority of the American public supports giving same-sex couples the freedom to marry. The consensus for marriage equality is building across the country. With people like Edie Windsor leading the charge, we at SAGE would expect nothing less!
For more information on SAGE’s amicus brief, see SAGE’s official statement.
Executive Director, SAGE