Lambda Legal Takes Up Fight For Lesbian Widow’s Same-Sex Social Security Benefits

Kathy Murphy has spent the two years since her wife died of cancer fighting to simply access the same rights as widowers and widows mourning the loss of an opposite-sex spouse. Now, she’s got Lambda Legal on her side. The prominent LGBT rights organization filed a suit this week against the Social Secrurity Administration to secure its benefits for same-sex couples.

Though the overturn of DOMA in the Windsor case eliminated much of the discrimination against gay and lesbian couples at the federal level, the Social Security Administration distributes benefits based on the state where the couple lives. Since Murphy,62, and her wife Sara Barker married in Massachusetts in 2010 but resided in Texas, Social Security cannot disburse spousal survival benefits to Murphy even though she and her wife paid into the system her whole life.

“We worked hard to close all the gaps before she died and now the federal government won’t do its part. That money will ensure that I can take care of the home that Sara and I shared together,” Murphy said in a press release. “We worked hard to support ourselves, and our dream was to grow old together, side-by-side.  My hope now is that I will be treated no differently than any surviving spouse who has faced this same devastating loss.”

Murphy’s case highlights the tragic complications that arise when individual states and the federal government aren’t on the same page about the basic civil rights of its citizens. Texas’s refusal to acknowledge Murphy and Baker’s legal marriage is ugly, but a policy that then prevents a federal program from disbursing benefits because of that state’s law is truly heinous.

Susan Summer, the director of constitutional litigation at Lambda Legal, put it simply: “SSA should not be telling widowed lesbians and gay men already grieving the loss of a spouse—‘you live in the wrong state so you don’t get Social Security spousal benefits.'”

In June, Eric Holder and the Department of Justice voiced their commitment to conforming the Social Security Administration to the rest of the federal government so that it can honor “place of celebration” rather than residency in disbursing benefits. The Department of Veterans Affairs has policies similar to the Social Security Administration’s that are also under legal challenge.

It also seems like only a matter of time before the Supreme Court federalizes marriage equality — things keep happening on that front. In the meantime, the federal government has already promised to stop discriminating against same-sex married couples. It must live up to that promise in all its programs, especially ones as critical and wide-reaching as Social Security and Veterans Affairs.

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Adrian is a writer, a Texan and a Presbyterian pastor. They write about bisexuality, gender, religion, politics, music and a whole lot of feelings at Autostraddle and wherever fine words are sold. They have a dog named after Alison Bechdel. Follow Adrian on Twitter @adrianwhitetx.

Adrian has written 153 articles for us.


  1. (Just commenting to say that I read this and that I love the work you do for this site but can’t think of anything to say besides spluttering in indignant rage)

  2. I skipped over this article at first, but this is a big deal! This is just the issue that shows why a state by state approach is failing many Americans. Thank you for the informative and well written article!

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