I remember June 26, 2015 so clearly I can give you an hourly breakdown. The TV was on as soon as I woke up, Pacific Time meaning I cut right to the good stuff outside the Supreme Court. I expected a much longer wait — one that justified the days, months, and years of hand wringing and breath holding already done — when boom, there it was, barely ten minutes into my day.
“There is a right to marriage equality.”
“Same-Sex Marriage Legal Nationwide.”
“It is so ordered.”
My boss sent me home from work early to celebrate because I clearly wasn’t getting anything done. I had a beer on a restaurant patio at noon. One of my college professors met up with me in West Hollywood, and we spent the rest of the day into the next one hugging, crying, and meeting up with friends who arrived in waves. People were sobbing in the street, releasing years of frustration and rejection and the White House was lit up rainbow and it felt like, on that day, we were finally getting somewhere.
Now Obergefell v. Hodges seems like an incredible dream we all had at once. I still believe it will stand the test of Trump (and Gorsuch) and time. But two years ago, I also wasn’t considering its limitations. Not just that a marriage license won’t save you from losing your house or your job — but that marriage equality isn’t yet a reality for many queer disabled folks, no matter what the Court said.
That’s because of some delightful provisions in Social Security benefit law known as “marriage penalties.” Never heard of them? Good news: I made you a video!
Because of what programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) help pay for, benefits “adjusting upon marriage” isn’t as benign as it sounds. You don’t just have less money to your own name — you’re also risking your only means of access to certain kinds of healthcare. That’s not something your partner can fix by adding their income to yours.
“Once you get married, they say ‘You’re no longer a burden of your parent — you’re a burden of your spouse! Congratulations,’” explains Dominick, a queer trans person I interviewed for the project. “They basically put all the burden on your spouse to take care of you, and they become financially responsible for you as a disabled person, which is a really horrible way of looking at [us]. Their income, no matter what it is, is now paying for both of you. So if, for example, you only have Medicare, good luck getting a wheelchair. I hope your partner’s income can pay for that.”
“A lot of us are living day-to-day, and people don’t want us to even have that,” he continues. “They say we’re entitled, they say we’re lazy, they say we don’t deserve this. But I also don’t see it as a choice. Choosing between lifesaving healthcare and marriage? That’s not a choice. That’s why it’s a penalty, and that’s why this is an issue of equality.”
One point the video touches on that I want to drive home here: the penalties still apply if you are “living as married,” meaning that any serious relationship, even without the formalities of marriage, poses a risk. So public acknowledgment of that relationship may be asking too much. “Sometimes you don’t even mention your partner by name,” Dominick says. “Or if you’re talking about them online, you use a pseudonym. It’s for their safety as much as yours, because the fear is very real.”
Marriage penalties often fall through the cracks of the equality discussion. They don’t affect everyone, they’re confusing, and who cares about something as dry as Social Security law anyway? But especially now, it’s crucial to stay vigilant about the work we have left to do. So watch this video, enjoy me in full Narrator Mode, and remember that “equal dignity” means all of us.
For more on the Obergefell ruling, Social Security benefits, and marriage penalties, visit rootedinrights.org/didlovewin.