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