Former Rep. Gerry Studds (D-Mass.), who died in October 2006, was the first out gay member of Congress back in 1983. He was one of only three out gay members of Congress when, in 1996, the U.S. House of Representatives considered the Defense of Marriage Act.
One day before the House voted overwhelmingly to pass DOMA, Studds stood on the floor of the House and put the debate in very personal terms, "I have paid every single penny as much as every Member of this House has for that pension, but my partner, should he survive me, is not entitled to one penny.
"I do not think that is fair, Mr. Speaker," he continued on June 11, 1996. "I do not believe most Americans think that is fair. And that is real. Yet that is what the second section of this bill is about, to make sure that we continue that unfairness."
The second part of the bill, which was enacted as Section 3 of DOMA in September 1996, did become law.
Sixteen years later, Studds's widower, Dean Hara, will be arriving at the John Joseph Moakley U.S. Courthouse in Boston, where his "act of defiance" as he puts it -- seeking the same benefits as would be given to the surviving opposite-sex spouse of a former member of Congress -- will be the subject of an appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit this morning.
Talking with Metro Weekly on the afternoon before the oral arguments in Gill v. Massachusetts, Hara says of the 1996 debate on DOMA, "It was the last summer before Gerry retired, and I remember going to the House for dinner in the Members' Dining Room, then up to the gallery and listening to the debate. They were literally voting for discrimination completely in the abstract at that point.
"When this came up, especially in an election year, by Republicans, it really cried out for what it was, and that's what Gerry spoke about on the floor."
Looking at the decade that he and Studds spent together after the vote, he marvels, "I never, in a million years, thought that in the next 10 years that I would get married, legally, but then also become a widow. It's part of life, and I don't regret any of it, but, life changes."
As Studds had said on the House floor, Hara says today: "Even getting married, of course, we kind of knew that what it meant, in that we would still be treated as second-class citizens.
"It is -- it's interesting to have been through the part where it was abstract, and now it's very concrete to me, as an individual."
Extremely concrete, as Hara has been denied the Social Security lump-sum death payment available to a surviving spouse, the federal spousal survivor annuity that would be available to a surviving spouse and the federal health insurance benefits available to a surviving spouse -- which led him to be one of the plaintiffs in the Gill lawsuit that Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders filed on March 3, 2009.
Talking about the lawsuit, though, Hara looks to the other plaintiffs, noting, "I think one of the things that I most admire in a lot of the co-plaintiffs -- I mean, I had been in the spotlight -- but they just kind of stood up and said, 'This isn't right,' and just won't take no for an answer."
Among those plaintiffs are Nancy Gill, a postal worker, and her wife, Marcelle Letourneau; Mary Ritchie, a state police lieutenant, and her wife, Kathy Bush; and Al Koski, a retired Social Security claims representative, and his husband, Jim Fitzgerald.
For himself, though, Hara says, "I think the first time was, was probably just an act of defiance. Because I knew what would happen."
Saying the lawsuit has been "in some ways, very cathartic, kind of like healing," Hara says, "People have asked me, 'What would Gerry think?' And I, I think that he'd be very proud -- my friends say that he'd be very proud.
"But, he got into office because of the Vietnam War. He stood up and said somebody has to do it -- and he ended up running for Congress. That's the story in a nutshell. You kind of just do what you have to do."
"I think a lot of people would do the same thing. I do."
Asked what he wants to see come of today’s hearing and this lawsuit, he says, "I think this is a step in marriage equality, but the step that will be important not only to the plaintiffs and myself and eventually anyone who is married [in a state that allows same-sex couples to marry] ... is that they will be able to get the same federal benefits as any other married couple in their state."
And, he's confident.
"It will happen. I can say that -- I never would have thought that I would be here five years ago in this position when Gerry died," he says. "But, it's also been 37 months since we started this. The wheels of justice do go proverbially slowly. It's part of a process."
Hara sees both signs of progress -- and the steps that remain. Of the progress, he notes, "Whoever thought that so many members in the U.S. House of Representatives would sign onto the Respect for Marriage Act as opposed to 16 years ago? Things change."
Counterpoint: "Unfortunately, as we see, Congress may not be completely in sync with everybody else. Yes, it would be wonderful to have Congress get rid of the Defense of Marriage Act -- which they could do this week. But, that’s probably like the Mega Millions lottery -- I just don't think that’s going to happen -- so, we will continue to go on the path we are going on."
That path includes the House Republican leadership -- through lawyer Paul Clement -- defending DOMA in court today.
"They're saying the same thing they did 16 years ago and, honestly, it's as weak of an argument now as it was then," Hara says. "And I think most people knew that, except now it is politically easier for many people to really stand to their convictions and say that."
Looking at the Republican presidential field, he laughs.
"[Rick] Santorum was there in ’96 in the House. Trust me, he hasn't changed. He's consistent.
"[Mitt] Romney was governor [when Massachusetts began marriage equality in 2003] – he was actually more pro-marriage at that point, but he's against now. But he's also given ... to the National Organization for Marriage, so we kinda know which way he's leaning."
"And, Newt [Gingrich]. Well, he was speaker.
Summing up the three: "Let's demonize. Let's demagogue. Let's divide."
Hara's views -- the GOP presidential field aside -- are optimistic.
"However you want to say it, the tide is changing. For most people, it's like, 'Can we please get on to something a bit more important?'" Looking at the fact that DOJ's Civil Division chief, Stuart Delery, will be arguing alongside GLAD's Mary Bonauto that DOMA should be found unconstitutional, he adds: "I think that's part of the remarkable progress that has been made. Who would have thought?"
The question was rhetorical, but the man that Hara married on May 24, 2004, Gerry Studds, had thought that such progress was destiny.
In that floor speech on July 11, 1996, Studds criticized the unfairness that DOMA would make someone like his partner face, but he ended on a note of hope that echoes in Hara's lawsuit today.
"Things change, Mr. Speaker, and they are changing now," Studds said. "We can embrace that change or we can resist that change, but thank God All Mighty, as Dr. King would have said, we do not have the power to stop it."
[Photo: Hara (Photo courtesy of GLAD.)]