Tuesday, December 4, 2018

"I'm So Grateful for Marriage Equality"

They weren't my words.

Yesterday, I went for my appointment, made over six weeks ago, at the Social Security office here in Salt Lake to claim survivor benefits as the widower of my late husband. 

On the day Mark was diagnosed with inoperable, terminal prostate cancer in April 2013, I couldn't have imagined what I experienced yesterday. But then, three months after that diagnosis, the United State Supreme Court ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional and that all benefits under federal law that accrued to heterosexual couples must also be made available to legally married same-sex couples.

But we lived in Utah, where there was no recognition of same-sex marriage. 

That fall of 2013, marriage equality became the law in the state of Hawaii. The following month, a lone, very courageous, district court judge in Utah ruled that our state's constitutional amendment barring recognition of same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. The governor and our state's attorney general (who used to sit in the office next to me in my law firm in Salt Lake) appealed.

Meanwhile, on a beach in Maui on April 15, 2014, Mark and I were legally married. That fact meant that, under federal law, our marriage would be treated in the same way as a marriage between a man and a woman. 

Later that year, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the ruling of Judge Robert Shelby, and marriage equality became the law in the State of Utah. The following summer, the United States Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land throughout the country, based in part on that courageous, well-reasoned ruling of Judge Shelby.

I was a little apprehensive as I arrived for my appointment yesterday. I had heard horror stories of rogue Social Security staffers refusing to process applications such as mine. I wondered how I would be treated. It didn't help when I glanced at my appointment letter and saw the words "Widow claim" or when I glanced at the wall in the waiting area and saw staring down at me the faces of our current president and vice-president, the latter of whom, particularly, has made no secret of his animus toward gay people and the advances we have made toward full equality in this country.

Soon enough, my name was called, and I went to the designated window to complete my application. A woman on the other side of the glass pleasantly greeted me and explained that she would assist me in completing my application for survivor benefits. We started going through the formalities. She asked a litany of questions, including asking whether Mark had ever served in the armed forces. I replied that he had served in the Coast Guard in the 70's.

At some point, I'm not sure where exactly, we reached a point where the obvious had to be addressed: Mark and I were a same-sex couple. I am gay. He was gay. Perhaps it was when I presented a copy of our marriage license. That's when she said it.

"I'm so grateful for marriage equality," she said. "I remember the day it became law here in Utah. My step-daughter called me and said, 'Mom! Same-sex couples can get married in Utah!'"

I was, well, moved. 

Dignity. Such a simple thing which is too often withheld. And here it was, being freely offered to me.

"Thank you," I said, my eyes meeting hers. 

The clerk smiled. "Of course," she replied, before turning back to her computer screen to complete the application.

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