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    The Podium

    Federal benefits need to include married same sex couples

    Shawn Klein and Phil Fung after their marriage ceremony in New York in February.  (Andrew Burton/Reuters)
    Shawn Klein and Phil Fung after their marriage ceremony in New York in February. (Andrew Burton/Reuters)

    This week the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit is hearing oral arguments challenging the constitutionality the Defense of Marriage Act’s denial of federal benefits for married same sex couples.  I will join my 16 co-plaintiffs at the John J. Moakley Courthouse in Boston.  It’s been a long three years since we were last here.

    As the spouse of the late Congressman Gerry E. Studds, I’m more familiar with political than legal arguments.  Even though our court case is about the federal government disrespecting our state-licensed marriages, I know that opponents feel it is about the illegitimacy of our marriages to begin with.  But we have more common ground than differences on how God, country and family factor here.

    Even after a Catholic school education from grade school to college I’ve never been one to wear my religion on my sleeve. I will share that Gerry and I were married by an ordained minister. A Roman Catholic priest was one of the three other people I had at Gerry’s cremation. It took me years to accept that God loves me as He created me.  Among my co-plaintiffs, there has been talk of a bat mitzvah and a first communion.

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    Like the others in the case, I grew up believing in the American dream.  And as a congressional spouse I had an inside view of our nation’s capital and had the opportunity meet Presidents and political icons.   To me, my co-plaintiffs are examples what makes this country great. They are average citizens who are willing to stand up for what they believe. They are active participants in democracy and our system of justice.  I think our Founding Fathers would be proud to stand with us.

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    We are all pro-family. We all came from families. Our families share the same concerns. Economic issues and life’s uncertainties impact us all. My co-plaintiffs Mary Ritchie and Kathy Bush worry about having less money to put away for their boys’ college education because they cannot file their federal taxes jointly, or what happens if Mary, a State Police lieutenant, is killed in the line of duty. Al Koski, a retired employee of the Social Security administration, cannot qualify for a family health insurance plan to cover his spouse Jim Fitzgerald. All other married employees and retirees have that security.

    Another co-plaintiff, Herb Burtis, is fighting for the Social Security protections that other widowed spouses can rightly count on in their senior years after being with his spouse for sixty years and caring for him through fourteen years of Parkinson’s disease.  Our families look like any other American family.

    When I was growing up marriage was an impossible dream. I knew I was gay at an early age even though I didn’t yet know the words to describe my true feelings.  It was more important to blend in and avoid being the kid who was always bullied.

    Sixteen years ago I sat in the gallery of the US House of Representatives and listened to Gerry speak out against DOMA. Same-sex marriage didn’t exist anywhere in the country. I never even dreamed that within the next 10 years I would get legally married in Massachusetts and become a widower.

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    I’ve learned that justice moves slowly. To put our fight for equal rights in context, Gerry always pointed out the long period of time between the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Act of 1963. He would then focus on how far we have come in the 40-plus years since Stonewall. DOMA has been on the books 16 years, and it’s been over five years since I first challenged DOMA and applied for the same federal benefits given to any surviving spouse of a federal employee.

    A majority of the population nationwide now supports marriage equality. I remain confident in the justice of our legal system and the promise of equal protection of the laws.

    The Podium features local experts and advocates weighing in on the issues of the day.Read more here.

    Dean T. Hara is spouse of the late Representative Gerry E. Studds of Massachusetts, the first openly gay member of the US House of Representatives.