I Can Die Now

Here's What I Don't Have to Worry About Now That the Supreme Court Overturned DOMA

I Can Die Now

Robert Ullman

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My death.

It crosses my mind every time I get on an airplane, every time I speak before a crowd, every time I ride my bike over the Ballard Bridge. And it doesn't just cross my mind. There's nothing momentary or fleeting about it. I flash on gruesome, high-res images of the plane I'm on exploding in flames, or one of the many assholes who send me death threats splattering my brains all over the lectern I'm standing at, or the city bus that's bearing down on me dragging my mangled bike and lifeless body for several blocks.

Does that sound exhausting? It is. And it must be genetic, because my mother was like this, too.

Whatever the situation, whatever the challenge, my mother would obsess about the worst possible outcome. She never got on a plane without thinking about it crashing, she never dropped her four kids off at the lake without thinking about all four of us drowning, she never ate a chicken salad without worrying about salmonella poisoning. My husband long ago dubbed this affliction "WCSD," which stands for "worst-case scenario disorder." He considers it a mental illness.

Terry may be right. But here's the thing: WCSD works. My mother believed that obsessing about worst-case scenarios was the best protection from worst-case realities. If you thought about the plane you were on crashing, the plane you were on wouldn't crash. If you thought about your kids drowning, your kids wouldn't drown. If you thought about your chicken salad killing you, your chicken salad wouldn't kill you.

"Magical thinking," the rationalists call it. They don't mean it as a compliment.

I was always a bit of a magical thinker, like my mom (I'm like my mother in this and other ways), but my WCSD got much, much worse after the birth of my son, D.J., and after Terry decided to become a full-time stay-at-home dad. Once I was the sole means of support for three people, I found myself obsessing about all the ways I could die. I could die in a plane crash or be hit by a car or get salmonella eating bad food. I could die in a fire or be taken out by antigay Christian ninjas or get hit by lightning or be accidentally asphyxiated during a rim job gone tragically, tragically wrong. There are so many ways to die.

Before I became a parent, I was only plagued by images of my death. (I could die of the plague—an Oregon man contracted the plague in 2012 trying to save a mouse from a cat.) I didn't flash on images of what would happen after I was dead. That changed when I became a parent in 1998, two years after Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law. My country wanted to make sure that if I died, Terry wouldn't just have to endure the pain of losing his husband, and D.J. wouldn't just have to endure the pain of losing a parent. No, there would be bonus pain for my family. Because we weren't married in the eyes of the federal government—because of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act—Terry, who has been a stay-at-home parent for more than a dozen years, wouldn't be able to collect Social Security survivor benefits, something he would be entitled to if we were an opposite-sex married couple. He would also face a crushing federal tax burden, taxes he wouldn't have to pay if Terry were my wife.

We talked to a tax lawyer about it once. She had two words of advice for me: "Don't die."

For 15 years, this weighed on me. If I died, my husband would be made to suffer. If I died, my son would be made to suffer. Parents are supposed to protect their children from harm, and here was this thing—DOMA—that I couldn't protect him from. If something happened to me, DOMA would impoverish my husband and son. Terry and D.J. would lose the house. They would lose everything.

Edie Windsor, the plaintiff in the lawsuit that toppled DOMA, met Thea Clara Spyer at an Italian restaurant called Portofino, "a place where women who wanted to rendezvous with other women could do so discreetly, with little fear of exposure or entrapment," according to the New York Times. The women married in 2007 in Canada. On Spyer's death in 2009, Windsor was hit with a $363,053 tax bill that she would not have had to pay if her beloved Thea had been a Theo.

The same thing would have happened to Terry and D.J. if a plane crashed or a bus ran me down. And this—my family living under the sword of Damocles (DOMAcles?)—was absolutely, crucially necessary, social conservatives argued. Why? Because my family's vulnerability somehow served to strengthen families headed by opposite-sex couples. The impoverishment of my husband and son in the wake of my death was a price Brian Brown and Rick Santorum and Maggie Gallagher were willing to pay to protect the ideal of "traditional marriage." Magical thinking meets antigay bigotry: By punishing Terry for the crime of being gay, and by punishing D.J. for the crime of having gay dads, traditional marriages would grow stronger. (Never mind that traditional marriage had been redefined out of existence by straight people decades ago—traditional marriage died the day straight people decided that women weren't the property of their husbands.)

These are the two people I have sworn to love, to protect, to take care of. And here was a thing that I was utterly powerless to protect them from. And it was purely punitive. DOMA, which would inflict needless suffering on my husband and son, was designed expressly to punish gay people for existing. DOMA, Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan pointed out during oral arguments in Edie Windsor's case, was approved by a Congress whose judgment "was infected by dislike, by fear, by animus." When the lawyers arguing for DOMA objected to that characterization—when Chief Justice John Roberts objected to that characterization—Justice Kagan quoted from the 1996 House Report on DOMA: "Congress decided to reflect and honor a collective moral judgment and to express moral disapproval of homosexuality."

The next time I get on an airplane, or the next time I ride my bike over the Ballard Bridge, or the next time I speak before a large crowd, terrifying images will still leap to mind. Crash-and-burn, hit-and-run, lock-and-load. But last Wednesday, when the decision came down, a weight was lifted from my shoulders. Terry and I are married now in the eyes of Washington State and the federal government. So long as we live in a "recognition state," one of the 13 where same-sex marriage is legal, we're safe. (Why would we live anywhere else?) I can worry about my death, but I no longer have to worry about the federal government punishing my husband for the crime of loving me or punishing my son for the crime of having two dads.

The fight isn't over. Same-sex couples are still being discriminated against in 37 "non-recognition states." We can't rest until same-sex couples in Texas and Mississippi and Oregon and everywhere else enjoy equality under the law, too. But right now, we can take a moment to celebrate what we've won: peace of mind, the right to determine our own next of kin, immigration equality for binational couples, dignity. And we should take a moment to express our gratitude.

Thank you, Edie—and thank you, Thea. recommended


Comments (54) RSS

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TomJohnsonJr 1
Lovely article, Dan. CNN reported this morning that Edie's tax and interest refund will be about $700K. http://money.cnn.com/2013/06/28/pf/taxes…
Posted by TomJohnsonJr on July 3, 2013 at 9:33 AM · Report this
ScrawnyKayaker 2

Well punned.
Posted by ScrawnyKayaker on July 3, 2013 at 9:43 AM · Report this
ScrawnyKayaker 3
If only we could get back to traditional Amurikin marriage, in which married women couldn't own property or sign a contract.

Posted by ScrawnyKayaker on July 3, 2013 at 9:51 AM · Report this
Nice, Dan. I've respected your work a lot since I heard you speak at a NORML conference a few years back and have never stop being impressed since then.
Posted by NORMLsavagefan on July 3, 2013 at 10:23 AM · Report this
The snowball is rolling down the hill now, picking up size and strength with every turn. I can easily see 3-6 more states granting marriage equality this year alone. It doesn't take much imagination to see a tipping point within 5 years, that so many states have approved marriage equality that SCOTUS will almost surely have to rule on the constitutionality of it. At that point, it will become the law of the land across the USA.
Posted by SeattleKim on July 3, 2013 at 10:24 AM · Report this
This is a tangent, but you have an interesting natural experiment going on in your family regarding the fear of death. You could find out if your siblings and/or biologic or adoptive nieces (if you have any) have it; and then if you son has it. You might find out it was environmental. Of course, we're basically talking an n of 1, but still...
Posted by Jude Fawley on July 3, 2013 at 10:31 AM · Report this
Look at all the trouble that letting black folk marry white fold caused. Mixed Race amrriage destroyed straight marriage. God thing this supreme court struck down DOMA 5 to 3-3/5.

Tradition is for shit in the country.

Going to go get the wife and go to an orgy and suck me some dick while see muff dives! See!!!!!
Posted by wine-o on July 3, 2013 at 10:33 AM · Report this
ShifterCat 8
Another battle still to be fought, though: getting the Voting Rights Act reinstated. Otherwise the bigots will have even more of a stranglehold on the South.
Posted by ShifterCat on July 3, 2013 at 10:34 AM · Report this
Look at all the trouble that letting black folk marry white fold caused. Mixed Race amrriage destroyed straight marriage. God thing this supreme court struck down DOMA 5 to 3-3/5.

Tradition is for shit in the country.

Going to go get the wife and go to an orgy and suck me some dick while she muff dives while getting sodomized! See!!!!!
Posted by wine-o on July 3, 2013 at 10:34 AM · Report this
iamfantastikate 10
I really couldn't be happier for you and all the families this ruling has affected. As a fellow oh-shit-is-this-going-to-kill-me worrier, I can't imagine living with the additional concern of what disasters my death might put on my husband. I'm glad you can rest more easily, even if there's still work to be done elsewhere.

Don't hold your breath on Mississippi, though. That really would kill you.
Posted by iamfantastikate http://fantastikate.com/ on July 3, 2013 at 10:36 AM · Report this
Well said Dan!
Posted by boattw on July 3, 2013 at 10:56 AM · Report this
vaughna 12
Dan, if I ever catch you riding your bike over the Ballard bridge, you won't have visions of hit-and-runs anymore; you'll have visions of me slapping the sh*t out of you. Please don't ride a bike on that death-trap of a bridge again. Promise?
Posted by vaughna on July 3, 2013 at 11:07 AM · Report this
The sad thing is that your passion in defense of your family should be held as an example to anyone who supports a family unit, not punished. Well done.
Posted by lucyboots on July 3, 2013 at 11:10 AM · Report this
Knat 14
I expect this is already being linked to and referenced from all parts of the Internet. And rightly so.
Posted by Knat on July 3, 2013 at 11:48 AM · Report this
Wonderful column. Left me all melancholy and sniffly, though. Why are people so fucking wretched to each other, just to make a point? Living life is hard enough without having people hating on you. A little common courtesy among humans would go a long way.

Do you hear that, Brian Brown, Maggie Gallagher, Rick Santorum and the rest of you uncharitable, self-appointed, moralistic, rationalizing, cruel tormentors of peaceful people who just happen to be different from you? And for those of you self-described Christians (I'd call you something else) who make a living at it, I almost wish that Hell was real, because you would certainly end up there.
Posted by Brooklyn Reader on July 3, 2013 at 12:25 PM · Report this
It makes me laugh, imagining what evangelical, hard-core, asshole conservative Christians think when they have to hear Edie & Thea's love story being told and re-told, and will continue thus forever to be told. All their conservative hatred is left in the dust by true love.

Let us proclaim it "Edie & Thea Day" and keep it in our hearts forever.

Posted by Bugnroolet on July 3, 2013 at 12:38 PM · Report this
Helenka (also a Canuck) 17
Okay, NOW you've made me cry (though the graphics were kinda gory-silly). And @1's Christmas-in-July for Edie makes me cry, too.
Posted by Helenka (also a Canuck) on July 3, 2013 at 1:30 PM · Report this
I don't think I have the WCSD but as a lesbian and a parent, my heart does skip a few beats every time we travel from our home the states of Virginia and Alabama - two states we visit for my partner's side of the family. When we travel to see friends and family in MN and NY, I don't feel anxious or any version of WCSD.

What if we get sick in those states? What if our kids do? How will we be treated?

We have a lot of work to do. People living in those states deserve to be protected. And so do their kids.

The most recent DOMA ruling was encouraging but it is still inadequate.
Posted by MD Dyke on July 3, 2013 at 1:43 PM · Report this
kk in seattle 19
Dan, good article. I hope your tax lawyer has encouraged you to amend your returns for as many years as possible prior to the IRS recognizing that income is community property in Washington for domestic partners. That should save you a shitload.
Posted by kk in seattle on July 3, 2013 at 2:35 PM · Report this
Great article, Dan!
Posted by bobwingate on July 3, 2013 at 2:44 PM · Report this
Original Andrew 21
Life insurance: We got the shock of our lives when my dad died in a car accident. His life insurance saved my stepmother from poverty and helped her to continue with her life. It still stuns me how many people don't have it when it's so cheap and prevents so much misery and suffering, straight or gay. (gets down off soapbox)
Posted by Original Andrew on July 3, 2013 at 2:53 PM · Report this
Legal Gay Marriage was not going to be as difficult to get as many think, at least for the blue states. It doesn't threaten the profit margins of the oligarchs, so they don't really care if it happens or not.

The bigger problem will be getting the bennies for gay married couples.
Posted by neo-realist on July 3, 2013 at 3:08 PM · Report this
She had two words of advice for me: "Don't die."

Let's be honest: that's three words.
Posted by podcaf on July 3, 2013 at 3:33 PM · Report this
Great article that makes an extremely important point about how awful the now unconstitutional parts of DOMA were.

Death by suffocation from a rim job gone terribly wrong? That is terrifying.
Posted by NorCalSF on July 3, 2013 at 3:35 PM · Report this
Most Peeps Are Assholes 25
I have often worried about you at public speaking events and wish you didn't give them. Granted, someone in your line of work, probably has to do these events, but so many of those opposed to equality are reacting with such hatred (see the latest string of hate crimes in NY, for example) as they realize they're on the losing end of this fight that I worry, now more than ever, about the safety of folks like yourself who put yourselves out there in front of the public.
Posted by Most Peeps Are Assholes on July 3, 2013 at 3:43 PM · Report this
[non-BJ] With that style of thinking, Mr Savage really ought to start worrying about my scenario and considering what will happen when Mr Brown and Ms Gallagher either get desperate (or show their true colours, if that's one's interpretation) and plant a dead teenager in his hotel room. Easily done, and enough to ensure the passage of the FMA. I really half-expect it any week now; my guess is that the only thing that stops them is the risk.
Posted by vennominon on July 3, 2013 at 4:29 PM · Report this
Actually, marriage equity is up for grabs in my state, New Jersey, because Governor Road Rage wants to run for president. He signs the legislation and he'll lose the 2016 South Carolina GOP primary.

It doesn't matter that 60 percent of all New Jersey residents support marriage equity. It's all about Chris Christie's political ambition. Bleh. Welcome to a "half-baked" hater state.
Posted by calugg http://cath47.wordpress.com/ on July 3, 2013 at 4:50 PM · Report this
I worry about terrible things to ward them away, just like Dan. I call this 'prophylactic worrying'. The trick is to know when you have worried ENOUGH to avoid the danger. ;-) Unlikely events should only be worried on for thirty seconds to a minute. Extremely likely and terrible events need only be worried about for ten minutes, tops. Once you have worried enough, you can turn your mind to more pleasant things, certain that what ever terrible fate was in store has now been avoided. You should try it, Dan!
Posted by Schweighsr on July 3, 2013 at 4:57 PM · Report this
"Worst casing" is a verb at our house My husband was sure I was the only one so afflicted, and I always blamed it on being an ICU nurse. Good god, when you see all the crazy, rare, lightning bolt out of the blue shit that can happen to people, the only miracle is that it hasn't - yet!
Every time the phone rings, I'm sure a loved one is dead. I'm kinda glad I'm not the only one.
Posted by jsm62 on July 3, 2013 at 5:07 PM · Report this
The Way of the Samurai is found in death. Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one's body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one's master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead. This is the substance of the way of the samurai.
Posted by Dickie on July 3, 2013 at 6:19 PM · Report this
thene 31
Given the estate tax threshold and the unified credit, I think you're overstating this just slightly; anyone who's paying estate tax doesn't have a whole lot of money troubles. Though it was still horribly fucking unfair.

I keep thinking of Thea; her bones are in our legal foundations now. Her death is why this law was struck down, and that's pretty amazing.
Posted by thene http://thene.dreamwidth.org on July 3, 2013 at 6:29 PM · Report this
congrats bro, you've done too much for equality and everything you gain is so well deserved. in the future you will be, as you are now, a pillar. keep up the work, dan you are a son of something bigger than us. bigger than you. my hats off to you, I love you. the world is a much better place because of dan savage. much love, your huge fan, a new world republican. thank you brother
Posted by marcus.austex on July 3, 2013 at 7:41 PM · Report this
harmonyak 33
((hugs)) I'm glad you don't have that burden anymore.
Posted by harmonyak on July 3, 2013 at 7:56 PM · Report this
Dan, I am so happy for you and all of my friends who now have legal recognition on all levels. Of course most of them choose to live in places that validate their love...why *wouldn't* they. For those fighting the good fight in less tolerant places, we will keep fighting. :)

But worry-warting will wrinkle you and cut years from your life. I'm not trying to be a dick, I promise, but there are effective, non-drug therapies out there that can help with some of this. I went through cognitive-behavioral therapy to overcome a DEBILITATING (like, couldn't THINK of an airplane without having a panic attack) fear of flying, and it worked, and I've seen a few continents because of it. Sure, there's a legitimate worry about crazies at your appearances, but some of the other stuff you mention is not really all that dangerous. But, of course for you and for me previously, it's not about the *actual* danger, but what you perceive. I get it, I've been there. I couldn't fly, or use elevators, or stand on a balcony more than 2 floors up for about 10 years (I spent 2 months at one time hiking up 14 flights of stairs to my office...). Yes, it's natural to want to take care of your family, I'm just saying that, with the right help, you can be more comfortable doing the harmless things that scare you. 6 months of therapy changed my life, and all...
Posted by Ms. D on July 3, 2013 at 9:35 PM · Report this
Eva Hopkins 35
Yeah, what 34 said.

I'm also a bit of a compulsive worrier & had 13 years of Catholic school. Gee, I wonder if those things are connected..;)

Dan, the sense of relief must be huge.

Also, thanks for being so nice to my friend, when she lost her hubby; this article reminded me of that.

(@26, Mr. Vennominon - "non-BJ"? I keep thinking, no blowjobs? But why..? :D )

Posted by Eva Hopkins http://www.lunamusestudios.com on July 3, 2013 at 10:04 PM · Report this
rodolfo 36
I'm a little relieved I'm not the only one afraid of suffocating while giving a rimjob.
Posted by rodolfo on July 3, 2013 at 11:25 PM · Report this
Dirtclustit 37
I can sympathize with your fear of death, but the part that has me worried is the whole 5-4 ruling. To me this is black and white, and for the highest the Court of our Judicial Branch of Government to have damn near half of them literally clueless, straight up blinded by bigotry ignorant, that scares the shit out of me.

I've got to hand it to you for being so gentle and un-insulting, but am I the only one who doesn't why the lowest court should have no problem understand that the ONLY legal leg those fucking idiots would have had to stand on is if they were trying to prevent same sex committed partners from using the term "marriage" and even then this type of shit a court shouldn't even be bothered with unless they were going to grant same sex "unions" every tax break, every power of attorney, and every health care/life insurance coverage/benefit exactly equal as any other family is allowed.

I am happy for you Dan, this is a baby step in the right direction, but this learned, bigoted denial has such a firm grip on people that I keep thinking there has to be a hidden camera
Posted by Dirtclustit on July 4, 2013 at 2:06 AM · Report this
Terry, the sometime DJ, stay at home dad and underwear model (May I just say he sounds like a gay version of an Orange County Housewife) should be protected by life insurance no matter the SSI rights you've gained. SSI barely covers living expenses, and unless you've put some cash away, I suggest you get some to protect your son and spouse.
Posted by fotoeve on July 4, 2013 at 3:21 AM · Report this
I thought "traditional marriage" died when somebody decided that each man (presumed straight) should have only one wife. Or the point at which they decided that people getting married, especially women, should have any say whatsoever in who they were marrying.

And yes, there are some people that still practice that kind of marriage. I've kind of wondered what it might feel like to experience: "Jane, this is William. He'll be your sole sexual partner, your legal guardian, and your sole source of income for the rest of your life. Have fun!"
Posted by Thexalon on July 4, 2013 at 5:54 AM · Report this
Thank you for writing this. I've been feeling a little bad since last week because while everyone I know has been planning wedding showers and honeymoons and exploding with glittery joy, I've just kind of sat back totally gobsmacked by the fact that I'm suddenly good for a green card...that one day social security survival benefits might keep me out of a 60 Minutes type nursing home. I've been so completely obsessed by practicality and paperwork that I felt a little bad that I wasn't as blinded by the joy of it all as some others.

Don't get me wrong. There is joy here and lots of it. But a green card? Inherited pension benefits? Joint taxes? I'm completely blown away by joys of a jointly filed 10-40 and next of kin hospital visitation.
Posted by DanCMH on July 4, 2013 at 9:58 AM · Report this
kim in portland 41
Nicely written, Dan. I, too, am glad you have one less worry.
Posted by kim in portland http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2010/11/fast-paced_video_provides_a_fu.html on July 4, 2013 at 11:07 AM · Report this
Beautifully written article, Dan! I'm so happy for you, Terry, and your son!
Isn't it wonderful to find peace and simply be able to go on living your lives? Hooray to the death of DOMA!!
Posted by auntie grizelda on July 4, 2013 at 12:19 PM · Report this
BTW, I LOVE Robert Ullman's artwork!!
Posted by auntie grizelda on July 4, 2013 at 12:22 PM · Report this
...and I mean because it's so well drawn and well stated.
Posted by auntie grizelda on July 4, 2013 at 12:25 PM · Report this
Lovely article Dan.

The federal govt. should make anonymous internet death threats a federal crime and prosecute it across state lines. No one should have to deal with that and since they already read all our email and "anonymous" comments anyway, they should put that monitoring to good use.
Posted by delta35 on July 4, 2013 at 12:47 PM · Report this
@38 said "Terry, the sometime DJ, stay at home dad and underwear model ... sounds like a gay version of an Orange County Housewife..."

Nothing wrong in my book with a traditional relationship where 1 parent stays at home. The economics of it make sense given that USA doesn't have tax-supported childcare (nothing wrong with both parents working either).

The irony of the Christian haters who dislike Dan Savage is that actually Mr. Savage is quite traditional in many ways. They probably hate him more because he's way better at "traditional" marriage than most of them are!
Posted by delta35 on July 4, 2013 at 12:54 PM · Report this
This article was perfect, except for one thing.

It needed to be written about four years ago. Probably earlier.
Posted by gromm on July 4, 2013 at 5:07 PM · Report this
Thanks Dan! But take the hint about buying some life insurance. SS doesn't keep people out of poverty, just barely off the street,even if you've paid off most of the mortgage. Put some money away for your joint retirements and the kids college fund. The only one who is going to take care of your family is you. Just another street dyke who'se learned the hard way....
Posted by olderdyke on July 5, 2013 at 3:39 PM · Report this
Very well worded, Dan. As a queer living in Texas, thanks for not giving up the fight for the rest of us just because you got yours (not that you ever would!). xoxo
Posted by sweet g on July 6, 2013 at 7:46 AM · Report this
I hear you guys re: life insurance. Tried to buy it three different times. Debated including that in the piece. Explaining why I was uninsurable would've required a massive tangent. Frizzelle, who edited the piece, advised against including it.
Posted by Dan Savage on July 6, 2013 at 5:44 PM · Report this
Your excellent article comparing to gays' denial of the AIDs epidemic of the 1980s in perfect comparison to midwestern ranchers' denial of global warming and human created climate change was also sheer brilliance, Dan.
While it sadly wasn't what a lot of people want to admit, it had to be said.
Bravo and kudos to you, Terry, and DJ and all the best!

p.s. I'd like to see one of Terry's underwear ads!
Posted by auntie grizelda on July 6, 2013 at 11:11 PM · Report this
Theodore Gorath 52
@50: Now I am really curious about why no one will sell you life insurance.

Did you have to take a second job as an alaskan crab fisherman or lumberjack to support the household?
Posted by Theodore Gorath on July 8, 2013 at 6:49 AM · Report this
Worked for Reagan in 76 53
Those sissy boys seeking social approval of having it off in a loving way while responsibly raising children are soooo much more un-Christian than those who usurp the Judgement Seat on the Right Hand of God from Christ...wonder which one God hates more?

Posted by Worked for Reagan in 76 on August 4, 2013 at 9:42 PM · Report this
Worked for Reagan in 76 54
Incidentally, I initially became aware of Dan thru his advice to the love-lorn column in a local Cleveland entertainment weekly. I gained great respect for him because his moral judgements were always based upon the concept of equity in human relationships (if it's good for Joe and Sandy, it's also ethical for Tom and Andy, Mary and Joan, or anyone else). Very refreshing for a guy born in the great sex desert of the 50's to see ethical advice on graphic sex!

Posted by Worked for Reagan in 76 on August 4, 2013 at 10:03 PM · Report this

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