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DOMA Rebuffed: Couples Reflect on What it Means

Posted on 02 July 2013

By Annette Hinkle

 On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that parts of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) are unconstitutional because same-sex couples legally married in states that recognize such marriages were subject to different legal protections and tax treatment than heterosexual couples. The case was brought by New York’s Edith “Edie” Windsor, a part-time Southampton resident, who, despite legally marrying her longtime partner, Thea Spyer, in Canada in 2007, was required to pay $360,000 in inheritance tax to the federal government upon Spyer’s death in 2009 (New York recognized same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions at the time).

Also struck down by the court last week was Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state of California.

This week, gay spouses on the East End reflected on what the ruling means for their lives, and the future of gay rights in America.

 

Stuart Lowrie and Ken Dorph during their wedding ceremony in Vancouver in 2005.

Stuart Lowrie and Ken Dorph during their wedding ceremony in Vancouver in 2005.

Ken and Stuart

In 1989, Ken Dorph and his partner Stuart Lowrie came to the Hamptons to visit friends for the weekend.

It was Dorph’s first trip to the East End.

“On Sunday morning, Stuart’s best friend, Ed, and his spouse Bill went to the beach in East Hampton,” recalls Dorph. ”There was a hurricane off North Carolina. Ed went swimming and got carried out. Bill went out to save him and briefly managed to grab him — but couldn’t hang on.”

Ed drowned that day.

“Bill was on the beach inconsolable,” say Dorph. “People on the beach gave him Ed’s belongings — his pants and his identification.”

And when police arrived, they asked Bill if he was next of kin.

“Bill said, ‘I’m his spouse.’ But the police said you can’t have the stuff,” says Dorph who notes that both men were in their 40s, owned property together and had been partners for 15 years. “Ed’s father, who was in his 70s and lived in Brooklyn, had to come out and identify the body and collect his things.”

For Dorph and Lowrie, it was a turning point. Though they had been in a committed relationship for close to a decade, they realized they had virtually no legal protections. In 1991, they acknowledged their relationship in a ceremony in front of family and friends.

“It was a turning point,” says Dorph. “We rented a place in the Poconos and invited 70 friends and families, including Uncle Richie who knew, but never mentioned it.”

“After that, there was no more talk about how we were waiting for the right girl,” adds Dorph. “It was a beautiful ceremony.”

“Somehow there was a before and after. When your community acknowledges you as a couple, things change,” says Dorph who adds though it made a difference, it wasn’t legally binding.

Today, Dorph and Lowrie are legally married. They took the plunge in Vancouver in 2005 and while New York legalized gay marriage in 2011, in 2008, the state recognized gay marriages performed legally in other jurisdictions, including Canada.

“From that time on, we were married in New York, but not in the United States,” says Dorph who notes that while there are benefits to being married in New York, the majority of spousal benefits — some 90 percent — are federal.

And with the fall of DOMA, Dorph and Lowrie will see those benefits —  1,100 to be exact — that gay married couples are now entitled to, many of which are related to tax law and property ownership.

“A big one for us is health insurance,” says Dorph. “The Nature Conservancy [Lowrie’s employer] recognizes spouses, but because I had no legal relationship to him, I’ve paid taxes on his health insurance as a gift.”

“DOMA is huge — to me it’s the end… the apogee,” says Dorph. “It means now we’re married in New York State and the United States.”

Nearly 25 years after their friend drowned, it also means that today, Bill would be entitled not only to his partner’s personal effects and his body, but the property they owned together — without having to pay inheritance tax like Edie Windsor, whose case brought down DOMA.

“I was on Christopher Street during Stonewall when gay people couldn’t even be, let alone be married,” says Dorph. “Seeing Edie’s response after the news was announced made me feel like a part of history. What a way to honor Thea. She altered history and their names are forever on this paper — like Brown vs. Board of Education.”

 

Stuart Lowrie and Ken Dorph during their wedding ceremony in Vancouver in 2005.

Stuart Lowrie and Ken Dorph during their wedding ceremony in Vancouver in 2005.

Rena Rosenfeld and Marilyn Mercogliano with justice Andrea Schiavoni on their wedding day.

Rena Rosenfeld and Marilyn Mercogliano with justice Andrea Schiavoni on their wedding day.

 Rena and Marilyn

Rena Rosenfeld and Marilyn Mercogliano were the first couple to marry in Sag Harbor after New York State legalized gay marriage in June 2011. Their ceremony took place on August 4, 2011 under a chuppah on Long Beach where they were surrounded by family, and friends, including their longtime friend — Edie Windsor.

“We gave Edie the honor of carrying the glass one breaks at a Jewish wedding,” recalls Rosenfeld. “We wanted her to share this with us.”

At the time, Rosenfeld recalled Windsor saying she had a fabulous law firm representing her in her efforts to get the money back she had paid on Thea Spyer estate.

“She was very angry,” adds Mercogliano. “She knew if she was legally married she wouldn’t have to pay those taxes.”

Rosenfeld and Mercogliano are gleefully celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision, and see the fall of DOMA as one of the major events of their lives together.

“The three happiest moments in our life was when we met each other, when we got married and now Thea and Edie’s marriage act – DOMA,” says Rosenfeld. “It’s a great feeling.”

“We went to a funeral in Calverton, I thought about the military. Now the spouses can be buried with each other and live together on base,” says Mercogliano. “This means medical benefits, housing, everything, their kids will be taken care of. Their spouses will be honored the same way.”

But despite the ruling, Rosenfeld and Mercogliano still harbor anger. The couple drive to Florida’s South Beach every year, and they always play a little game along the way — much like kids used to collect license plates on long trips. This game, however, has serious political and legal ramifications.

“In New York, we’re married,” says Rosenfeld. “And here we are in New Jersey. Whoops, there’s a big blockade in New Jersey by the name of Governor Chris Christie. No gay marriage is allowed.”

“Delaware, just yesterday they passed it, Washington DC, We’re ok,” she adds.  “Now it starts — North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia … we’re not married. Here we are in Florida — not married.”

“We laugh about that ride down, but it’s pathetic,” adds Rosenfeld.

While the couple is happy they live in a state where their marriage is recognized and legal, and envision gay couples in states like New Jersey migrating across the river to reap benefits they can now get in New York, they worry about gay couples in less enlightened parts of the country and lower income brackets — those who are not supported and can’t afford to move to a state more friendly to them.

“Right now, we don’t feel 100 percent American,” says Rosenfeld. “Until it is passed throughout all 50 states, we will not feel equal. I can’t wait to feel like a full American when we get those rights.”

“I think slowly it will happen, only because all of the problems it will bring,” adds Mercagliano. “There will be a lot more lawsuits and the courts will be tied up, but once we get these rights, it will be wonderful.”

Celebrating in front of Incarnation Lutheran Church in Bridgehampton on Wednesday, June 26, 2013.

Celebrating in front of Incarnation Lutheran Church in Bridgehampton on Wednesday, June 26, 2013.

 Katrina and Pamela

Last Wednesday was a big day for 10-year-old Zoia Foster. She was on the front lines and the front lawn of Incarnation Lutheran Church in Bridgehampton with a large sign and a group of other revelers celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision on DOMA and Proposition 8.

“There were lots of people there,” says Zoia, daughter of the church’s pastor, Rev. Katrina Foster, and her wife, Pamela Kallimanis. “I had a sign and it said ‘My Moms Are Legal Now.’ I would hold it up and people would honk if they agreed with us. We were dancing and shouting and running around … and we had cake.”

Honking supporters included a UPS truck driver, a series of plumbers and contractors and the Hampton Jitney driver.

“A couple drivers shot us one of their fingers,” noted Rev. Foster.

“But if they see me hanging around, they can’t say anything, because I’m still a kid,” says Zoia wisely who, when asked what the day meant for her parents, responded, “They’re going to be treated equally now. My parents told me about people that didn’t treat them well.”

In many ways, Zoia represents the face of a new generation — one growing up in a culture of acceptance for non-traditional families. Zoia and her parents were featured prominently in a 2009 documentary titled “One Baptism, Many Gifts: A Story of Three Lutherans Called to Ministry.” The film was distributed to voting members of the 2009 ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) Churchwide Assembly where the policy toward gay pastors and their families was changed to recognize their calling.

“The way you change hearts is by getting to know people,” says Rev. Foster who first exchanged vows with Kallimanis in 1998, and was then legally married in 2010. “How do you say to a six-year-old that God hates you and your parents are wrong?”

“Zoia reached them through her innocence,” she adds. “People don’t know what to do with adults, but they know what to do with a child and that changed hearts and it changed the policy of the church in 2009.”

Now, the civil side of gay marriage is catching up.

“With DOMA and throwing out of Prop 8, it’s vindication of what we vowed to become in 1998,” says Rev. Foster. “Straight people didn’t lose one right, and no pastor, cantor or imam will be forced to preside over a wedding they don’t want to.”

But that doesn’t mean acceptance is universal. Rev. Foster sees two battles still looming large on the horizon in this country.

“Gay marriage is not recognized in 38 states, so if we visited family in Florida, there’s no guarantee we could visit each other in the hospital or speak as next of kin if something were to happen,” says Rev. Foster. “The other thing I see that’s connected, the day before DOMA and the Prop 8 decision came out, the Supreme Court gutted the voting rights act. That act was in place because it’s still needed. Within an hour, Texas moved to impose voting restrictions that were too racist to enact when it was in place.”

For that reason, Rev. Foster sees major work ahead.

“We’re still on the way. We have to have national uniform equality and the same law that applies to your marriage has to be acceptable in New York and Louisiana,” she says. “At the same time, Jesus said, ‘Those to whom much is given, much is expected.’ Those who have the privilege and relative safety in our lives have an obligation to work for those who don’t. When the Supreme Court ruled on DOMA and also gutted the voting rights act last week, with one hand the court took, with the other it gave.”

“It’s not right,” she adds. “We need to restore it so all can participate in the democratic process. We have the blessed opportunity and responsibility to keep working for everyone’s good.”

 

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