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Same-sex survivor denied pension
Spouse of gay ex-lawmaker ineligible for federal death benefit
- Kimberly Geiger, San Francisco Chronicle Washington Bureau
Friday, October 20, 2006
The death of a gay former congressman Saturday has left advocates for same-sex marriage frustrated, as the congressman's spouse has been barred from inheriting his federal pension despite the couple's legal marriage in the state of Massachusetts.
Former Massachusetts Rep. Gerry Studds, the first openly gay member of Congress, died Saturday at 69 after developing two blood clots, doctors said. Studds' husband, Dean Hara, has since been informed that -- unlike heterosexual spouses of former members -- he can't collect on his deceased husband's pension.
"This benefit is something that's there to protect their families," said Lara Schwartz, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group. "He (Hara) is being treated like a total stranger to his partner."
The couple married in 2004 after Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, but the federal government does not consider Hara a legitimate "spouse."
When a former member of Congress dies, his or her spouse is eligible to collect the member's pension. But the Defense of Marriage Act forbids the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages or civil unions, and pension administrators say they cannot release the funds to any relative other than a federally recognized spouse.
The Defense of Marriage Act -- passed in 1996 and opposed by only 67 members -- defines a spouse as "a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife."
"What we see here is the impact of legal discrimination," said Lee Swislow, executive director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a gay rights advocacy group based in Boston. "The federal government does not respect that marriage."
Studds, who voted against the act, served 24 years as a Democratic congressman and was openly gay for the majority of his time in Congress. In 1983, Studds was one of two members of Congress to be censured for having relationships with house pages. Studds then announced that he was gay. Despite being censured -- a disciplinary practice that typically ends a member's congressional career -- Studds' constituents continued to re-elect him until his retirement in 1997.
Studds' lifetime pension has been estimated to be worth an annual $114,337, and Hara would have been eligible to collect $62,000 each year for the rest of his life.
Peter Graves of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management said he is not aware of any other federal employee whose spouse has been denied the pension. Pension administrators will deny a spouse's claim only if that spouse is the same sex as the member, or if the spouse has been convicted of murdering the member, Graves said.
Schwartz, of the Human Rights Campaign, said the government's criteria for determining who gets their spouse's pension reflect institutional discrimination against gay federal employees. "It's unequal treatment of people who are doing the same job.
"Former members of Congress serving out jail terms are still eligible for these pensions, but gay spouses are not," said Schwartz, referring to former members such as San Diego County Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, whose conviction on charges of tax evasion and conspiracy didn't affect his eligibility to collect a pension. "Frankly, it's insulting."
According to Swislow, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders considers this conflict part of a larger battle between supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage. While Massachusetts is the only state to grant equal marriage rights to same-sex couples, advocates argue the federal government should respect an arrangement that is legal under state law.
Groups such as GLAD and the Human Rights Campaign say they will not take legal action on behalf of Hara, but they are pressing for legislation that would give gay federal employees equal rights. Under a bill by Sens. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore., the government would be required to provide gay employees with equal spousal benefits as well as life and health insurance.
E-mail Kimberly Geiger at email@example.com.
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