Publisher’s Perspective: DOMA’s dark shadow

Publisher’s Perspective: DOMA’s dark shadow

TomDyerHeadshotGays and lesbians have sought “equality” for so long that it can often feel like an abstraction. Not for my friends Debbie and Kim. Not now.

Both had good jobs with a national retailer, but the couple yearned to open a small business of their own. They did research, found a promising food service franchise, crunched numbers, considered their options and decided that Debbie would quit her job and open the business in a growing Orlando suburb. For as long as necessary Kim would keep her managerial position, her steady salary and her health insurance. Because the retailer offers domestic partner benefits, both would remain covered.

Debbie and Kim are hard-working, risk-averse people. Theirs was a cautious plan involving sacrifice by both partners. It also minimized the considerable risk involved in opening a new business.

Then the recession hit, Kim’s employer restructured, and she lost her job. The couple rallied, and Kim threw her time and considerable talent into the new business. When she applied for extended health care benefits under COBRA, she was pleased to learn that the recently-passed federal stimulus package would pay two-thirds of the cost. But then the insurance representative informed her that Debbie would be excluded from continued coverage.

When Kim protested, noting that her employer recognizes domestic partners, she was told that only a “spouse” would be considered a “qualified beneficiary” under COBRA. And because COBRA is a federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) limits the definition of “spouse” to persons of the opposite sex who are husband and wife. This applies even when the marriage of a same-sex couple is legal under state law.

The result? At a time when every dime was budgeted for the new business, Debbie could either buy an expensive individual insurance policy or go without and risk losing everything to an accident or serious illness.

As any small business owner will tell you, Debbie and Kim are paying hefty taxes to the very government that discriminates against them; a government that professes to covet every new job, but not enough to implement policies based on fairness that would encourage employment.

In an email, Debbie’s anger leapt from my computer screen.

“We are at a real disadvantage!” she said. “We do not have the same rights as everyone else!”

Debbie and Kim’s experience is not isolated. With unemployment continuing to rise, DOMA is preventing thousands of gays and lesbians from obtaining all-important COBRA health insurance coverage. Many have serious health issues.

Orlando Sentinel reporter Jeff Kunerth recently profiled two gay men swept up in recent layoffs at Disney. Both are eligible for COBRA, but their partners are not. One partner takes prescriptions that cost $400 per month without insurance. The other has a history of cancer, and the medical bills associated with a relapse would be ruinous.

If possible, the situation may be even more frustrating for my friends Mike and Pierre. The Pinellas couple has been together for more than a decade, but Pierre is a Canadian citizen. Because of health problems, he must maintain legal residence in Canada so that he can access that country’s universal health care. Even though his partner, his softball team and his life are in Florida, Pierre spends most of the year marking time in a chilly small town north of Toronto, sleeping in his mother’s spare bedroom.

If Mike and Pierre were different genders they could get married in Florida, Pierre would become an American citizen, and he would be insured whether Mike’s employer covers domestic partners or not. But DOMA definitions govern immigration law as well.

We were all justifiably discouraged by the vote last week to block same-sex marriage in Maine. As in California, proponents characterized marriage equality as a meaningless abstraction for gays and lesbians, and an ominous threat to children in classrooms. Even right wing organizations bragged that blocking marriage won’t impact the civil unions that an overwhelming majority of Americans now endorse for same-sex couples.

“When equality is achieved piecemeal, it’s not true equality,” Lambda Legal attorney Beth Littrell told the Sentinel’s Kunerth. “You see the holes, you see the gaps, you see the unequal treatment of couples.”

That’s why some LGBT strategists have shifted from state-by-state initiatives to a push in the federal courts. Two major lawsuits are pending: one case in California argues that state bans on gay marriage violate the federal Constitution; another case challenges DOMA itself.

Either way, change won’t likely occur fast enough to rescue Debbie, Kim, Mike and Pierre from the very real, very immediate consequences of inequality.

“This is second class citizenship,” Debbie wrote me. “And we have to endure it every day.”

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