In My View: Growing Pains and the Defense of Marriage

 

Six years ago I married my longtime girlfriend, Kris Martini ’95, in western Massachusetts where we first met as Smith soccer teammates a decade and a half earlier. My best friend from childhood, an ordained minister, performed the ceremony on the deck of a historic mill while sixty friends and family members who’d flown in from across the country bore witness to our public promise to love and support each other.

wedding day
Jen VanderWeyden ’93 (right) with wife Kris Martini ’95 on their wedding day.
 
At the end of February, our little family expanded—Kris gave birth to a beautiful baby girl we named Alexandra. The day Alex was born, President Obama announced that the Department of Justice would no longer defend the constitutionality of Congress’s 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal law that bans the recognition of same-sex marriage and takes the “united” out of United States for gay and lesbian Americans.Now, I’m not saying that our daughter’s birth had anything to do with the policy shift. But February 23, 2011, will be celebrated in our family as a doubly historic day.
 
The 1,100 Federal Benefits of Civil Marriage
As the reigning law of the land, DOMA has assigned second-class status to my marriage to Kris and rendered it legally unequal to heterosexual marriage. Congress’s act has also granted state and federal governments the right to deny Kris and me—and now our daughter—the more than 1,100 federal and, on average, 300-plus state rights and benefits of civil marriage.
 
Let me emphasize here the distinction between civil marriage, the institution regulated by government, and religious marriage, a cultural institution governed by the church. In the United States, legal marriage is a civil act that requires a license from the state. Given that Kris and I have a valid, binding marriage certificate from Massachusetts, and that our government is founded on the separation of church and state, I have yet to hear a compelling argument for why we should be denied our civil marriage rights.
 
Whatever the reasoning, DOMA has created numerous challenges for people like us. In our case, Kris and I have separate health insurance policies because in order to add her to the plan administered by the Washington state university where I currently work, I would have to pay a flat 25 percent tax each month on the total cost of her medical insurance premium. The federal government treats a domestic partner’s health insurance as a cash bonus, which adds thousands of dollars of phantom “wages” to the employed partner’s annual adjusted gross income. The “Gay Tax,” as we call it, that no straight married couple has ever been charged.
 
The thing is, we’re fortunate that my position at the local university even offers us the opportunity to pay those extra taxes. Kris developed a chronic illness a few years ago, and because DOMA says our marriage isn’t legal, the Washington state company where I started work shortly after her diagnosis refused to let me add her to my health insurance plan. We couldn't afford her medication, $1,500 a month out of pocket, and because she was sick she no longer qualified for private medical insurance. This meant she had to go without medication for several months while we scrambled to find an alternative, all because DOMA grants states the right to disregard our civilly granted marriage.
 
Death and Taxes
DOMA also means that if one of us dies, the other will have to pay estate taxes on the house that we own together—a financial burden not levied on opposite-sex spouses. Moreover, “married people” in America automatically receive Social Security benefits when a spouse dies. But under DOMA, if Kris or I die, the other spouse will be deemed ineligible for Social Security benefits. Other marriage rights currently denied to Kris and me: We can’t file our federal tax return jointly, though there is move afoot by the IRS to require state domestic partners to treat their partner’s income as joint property.

Jen, Kris, and their baby.
VanderWeyden and Martini with baby Alexandra at home in Washington state

 

We also don’t qualify for the federal definition of Family Leave—only “legally married” people are entitled to job security and unpaid leave to take care of a sick spouse or their spouse’s child. We wouldn’t be considered next-of-kin for medical decisions if one of us became too sick to be competent, and we don’t automatically receive the right to decide whether the one who dies first will be cremated or buried.

 
Gay Marriage and Birth Certificates
DOMA also impacts parenting rights. For much of Kris’s pregnancy, we believed that, since our marriage isn’t recognized in Washington, I would have to apply to the state after Alex’s birth for a second-parent adoption to be legally regarded as her other mother. This meant a costly and potentially lengthy delay in receiving my parental rights, an obstacle we’ve watched friends deal with stoically because at least we live in a state where we’re allowed to apply for government recognition of our family status. The same is not true in too many other places across the country.
 
But a few months ago, an attorney friend sent us an excited email—as of February 1, 2011, Washington state female registered domestic partners would receive a birth certificate with both the biological mother and non-biological mother’s names on it. No need for a lawyer, no need for a home visit by a social worker, no need for an adoption decree. Because our daughter was born when and where she was, my name went on the birth certificate from day one as her natural parent—a distinction I am, of course, more than grateful to accept.
 
Last week, I picked up a copy of the birth certificate from our local health department and discovered that instead of “Parent,” my name was listed under “Father.” When I contacted the state licensing department, they apologized profusely for the error and mailed a corrected birth certificate immediately. Just another growing pain for our little family as we sit astride the fence of social change. We’re not about to fall off, though—Smith prepared both Kris and me to go out into the world confidently, to be the change we seek.
 
Oh, and Alex is a future class of ’33er, if her two moms have anything to say about it. Given she’s the daughter of not one but two Smithies, I guess we’ll have to see what she decides later all on her own.