Pennsylvania: The Battle Ground for Marriage Equality And Where I Happen To Live

“It must be exciting living in Pennsylvania,” she typed via Facebook. “There’s something new every day.”

She is, of course, referring to our unexpected status as an epicenter for the marriage equality struggle. The ACLU has taken the Commonwealth to federal court over marriage equality.  The State Attorney General won’t defend the lawsuit because she believes the law is unconstitutional. Montgomery County (the most liberal in the state) has begun issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples. The Mayor of Braddock has begun marrying those couples. The Governor has repeatedly tried to shush them, but as of this week more than 100 couples have participated in this act of civil disobedience.

But we can’t marry. And if we do mary in other states, we cannot get a divorce in Pennsylvania – in 2010, a Berks County court refused to grant a divorce to a Pennsylvania same-sex couple married in Massachusetts on the grounds that it would have to recognize their marriage first, which would violate the state law. Also, if we marry in another state, we still have to do all of the paperwork required of an unmarried couple.

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It really isn’t exciting at all. It’s terrifying.

The other day I spent about two hours trying to get my mind around how the Social Security Administration will determine spousal eligibility for same sex couples – it will probably be based on residency so those of us living in states like PA are out of luck (assuming we are married.) But there’s a strong push for people to get married as soon as possible to establish the spousal relationship so that when SSA does change their rules (or the court rulings come down), those of us in middle and advanced years will meet eligibility requirements. This is particularly important for low income families and queer people of color, folks who often struggle in retirement years.

The same groups who are more likely to be unable to afford to see a family law attorney and/or afford the trip to get married. And/or have the luxury of time to browse the SSA website for two hours trying to grasp it all.

This is what I figure to be the case if Ledcat and I were to marry – we’d *possibly* stop being taxed on our domestic partner benefits, about $1,000 a year. Neither of us our veterans, neither of us are federal employees so those benefits aren’t accessible (although good.) We wouldn’t be able to do anything about the inheritance tax in PA (15%), the fact that my name is not on the deed to our house (state law), and we’d still have to have current legal paperwork like Power of Attorney and such. That’s just a rough estimate.

But in return, we can’t divorce unless once of us moves. Is that a good decision – lifelong legal tie to save $1,000?

And is that how you decided to get married? Because from where I sit, we are going to be assessing that balance for the next several years.

Trying to describe my ordeal with Medicare regulations would take hours of time.

For context, Pennsylvania has no statewide LGBTQ rights – no non-discrimination law, no bullying laws for schools, no hate crimes law, no nothing. The only semi-exception is an 11 year old court ruling allowing same sex parents the right to second-parent adoption. While we do have a Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) , we thankfully have not amended our constitution.

So exciting times?

Not so much. Exhausting, frustrating and wearying? Yes. Hopeful? Not really, not for me.

One of the biggest challenges to equality is the perception of the people – many, many folks perceive that it is illegal to fire someone for being gay so their investment in passing that law is low. Because they think the law exists. Folks perceive that Pennsylvania still has common-law marriage (abolished in 1996) and that second-parent adoption is a formality. Most people don’t even realize that there’s no such thing as a legal separation in Pennsylvania.

So, getting married out of state is not just an act of defiance or romance – it creates a lifelong legal bond that entangles you financially to another person in the eyes of the federal government without possibility of parole (so to speak.) That’s very sobering. And given that the most optimistic estimates of the court case having an impact are 4-5 years, that’s a long time.

And I can’t help but worry that the already stigmatized poor members of our community, the persons of color, the trans community, and our elders are going to pay the highest price either in terms of  making decisions without good information (that they can’t afford to access) OR missing out on opportunities for that same reason.

But getting back to my experience, I’m already exhausted and it has only been two months since the Supreme Court rulings. I’m exhausted because everything that happens impacts my family (and my community) and I am compelled to consume and ponder it. It is far too serious to sit back and wait to see what happens.

So, yes, I have an opinion and it’s not very popular. I recognize that there’s no stopping the acts of marital insurrection around the Commonwealth, but I can continue to ask community leaders and allies cheering them on – are you doing your  part to educate people about the consequences of their actions? Because they can’t undo it like a heterosexual couple.

I wish we could do a giant “marital crowdfundraiser” and collect money for modest and low income families to be able to see a reputable attorney to advise them on these matters. Rallies and marches are fine, but I don’t see evidence of a groundgame to push for equality. I have a lot of confidence in the ACLU (which is advising people not to get married) and their court strategy.  I wish I could say the same for the rest of it.

And it does make me angry. I’m angry that HB 300 is dead on arrival in the State Government Committee in the PA House of Representatives because Daryl Metcalfe is a stultifying homophobe. It makes me angry to get numerous media inquiries about employment and housing discrimination and have to acknowledge that NO ONE will go public with their experiences. Not even me.

It makes me angry that people presume that I should  be joyful and happy and excited to be part of history with almost no acknowledgement that its complicated to be part of history. And painful.

And most of all – it just makes me sad. And I just would like you to acknowledge that.

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