It was supposed to be just a little civil service, a Justice of the Peace type thing. We’d solemnly swear, sign some paperwork, and be done. Marriage at this point in our relationship, we thought, is merely a legal transaction – certainly no big deal.
But as two gay men in America, getting married is no small matter. It’s the flashpoint of a national debate over equal rights, one that could soon be decided by nothing less than the United States Supreme Court.
We got married recently because we had to – a shotgun wedding, of sorts. We’re expecting…no, not a baby, but that Supreme Court ruling, and the results could greatly impact our lives.
First, I should explain how we got here, since most people have no idea what has happened to gay couples in recent years. While many states have legalized same-sex marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships, a 1996 federal law called the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) specifically prevents the federal government from recognizing gay unions of any sort.
For Jerry and me, and thousands of others, this creates a financial nightmare, especially when filing taxes. In California, as registered domestic partners, we are required by state law to file a joint state tax return as a couple.
However, the IRS forbids us from doing the same thing on the federal level.
As a result, we must spend thousands of dollars on accounting fees each year to have our taxes done in a hinky fix that the IRS recently dreamt up: we must combine our incomes, split that money, and then file separate returns.
But since we aren’t related to each other (in the federal government’s eyes), the IRS did not create a form or system to allow couples to actually comply with this mandate. So far we’ve followed these IRS tax rules twice. One year our returns sailed through, no problem. But for another year’s returns we were both accused of cheating on our taxes.
We’ve been fined and threatened (one bigoted IRS worker even shared with me his personal disdain for gay couples), and we cannot get the matter resolved. Our plea for help from the Taxpayer Advocate’s office has been repeatedly ignored. So far this has cost us more than $20,000.
But it gets worse.
Last year I nearly died. I came about as close to death as possible due to complications from a heart procedure done many years earlier – my heart stopped beating. At one point I was induced into a coma and packed in ice to lessen any possible trauma to my brain and body.
When I emerged (I’m fine now) we learned that if I had died our belongings would have been subjected to a mad money grab by the government. Because DOMA prevents us from being recognized as a “real” couple by the IRS, Jerry would have faced all sorts of taxes and legal headaches to “inherit” half of our combined savings – money that he had earned and already paid taxes on. Heterosexual married couples have unlimited tax-free inheritance and face no such extreme taxation.
So if the worst had happened, Jerry would have lost me, and much of his life’s savings as well.
This isn’t just some theory. It actually happened to Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer. The two New York City women had been a couple for 42 years and were married in Canada, where gay marriage is legal (the IRS fully recognizes the legitimacy of straight Canadian marriages). When Thea died in 2009, Edith, now 83, faced more than $600,000 in state and federal estate taxes on their family home and savings – a huge sum that a surviving spouse in a heterosexual marriage would not have had to pay.
My brush with death made Jerry and I realize that the same thing could happen to us, so we set off on a journey to try to stop that. We spent months and a small fortune consulting experts, filing paperwork, and establishing trusts to hold our assets. Still, we could be vulnerable.
Finally, a top expert put it bluntly, “You need to get married as quickly as possible in any place where it is legal.”
That’s because Edith Windsor did not accept her fate from the IRS – she fought to save what she and Thea had built together. In fact, it is Edith’s case that the U.S. Supreme Court will consider in March, putting DOMA on trial. Lower courts have ruled that it’s wrong to tax people differently, simply because they’re gay.
If Edith prevails, and DOMA is struck down, then married gay couples should get equal rights under the tax code. But such a ruling would likely only apply to those who are “married” – not those who settled on an alternative arrangement such as a civil union or domestic partnership, like the one we had in California.
Hence the order from our expert to get legally married immediately. That led to our quickly planned “shotgun” wedding this past New Year’s Eve in Massachusetts – my home state, and one of nine states where gay marriage is legal.
But Edith’s case, and the fate of DOMA, isn’t the only trial facing gay people this spring.
The high court will also hear arguments about the legitimacy of California’s Prop 8, a voter-initiative (well, actually, more like a Catholic and Mormon church initiative) that outlawed gay marriage after it was briefly legal in California in 2008. Again, at issue is whether gay people are being treated unequally under the law.
Rulings on both cases are expected by June.
What will the justices do?
Most experts seem to think the court will be split along political lines, between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans.
But I think, no matter how they spin it, the divide will actually be between two sets of beliefs about human nature: those who accept that some people are simply born differently, with a different sexual orientation, and those who mistakenly hold onto the discredited and erroneous notion that people chose to be gay – like it’s a lifestyle choice, and therefore not worthy of equal protections.
During the arguments for both cases this March look for belittling questions using that word “lifestyle” by Justice Antonin Scalia and others. Only by reducing being gay to a choice can the argument be made that gay people are not entitled to full equal rights.
And Scalia will need to have the elasticity of an Olympic gymnast to bend his arguments against gays – after all, this is the same guy who ruled in the Citizens United case that corporations should receive equal rights similar to those of human beings. So it will be fascinating to see how he backflips now to argue that gay people should not be treated as equally as straight people.
Oh, he’ll find a way to do it, and once again cement his place on the wrong side of history. Remember, Scalia was one of the few court holdouts to invent a constitutional argument to support hate-inspired anti-gay laws in Texas. (When he’s gone, perhaps his portrait can be placed in a rogues’ gallery alongside that of long-dead Justice James Clark McReynolds, a vehement anti-Semite who would walk out of the court’s conference room whenever Justice Louis Brandeis, the first Jew on the Court, would speak.)
Back to our shotgun wedding…
As we set it up, we genuinely thought the wedding would be no big deal – we were doing it for legal reasons, as our expert had advised. After all, we’d been a couple for more than a decade, been recognized by the state of California as registered domestic partners for seven years, and owned a home together for more than eight. We were already a bond.
But we were not allowed to be so nonchalant.
Friends in San Francisco threw us a lovely surprise impending-nuptials party before we left. In Massachusetts my parents came to the ceremony, and a friend showed up and made sure we wore white rose boutonnieres, and then threw us a little reception afterward, complete with a Mr. & Mr. cake. Jerry’s family treated us to a dinner party in our honor a few days later, as did friends in Manhattan.
The clerk who performed the ceremony at Attleboro City Hall spoke eloquent, thoughtful words – not at all the legal mumbo jumbo we expected.
It suddenly was all much more meaningful than either of us anticipated. Jerry cried a little, as he often does since we survived my brush with death, when life’s moments remind us how incredibly fortunate we are to have each other.
So much for being no big deal.