I had the right to marry for a few days in 2008. I turned eighteen in the week before the Presidential election, gaining the rights of a legal adult, including marriage and voting. One of the things I voted on, my first time in the ballot box, was Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative to take away my brand-new legal right to get married in my state. I voted against Prop 8; as you probably know, it passed.
Last month, I stood in front of the Supreme Court as the decisions on Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) were announced. The crowd was overwhelmingly supportive. Small clusters, centered around smartphones, began to break into cheers. The timing of the cheers varied slightly depending on how fast a given phone could load SCOTUSblog’s live feed. “They overturned DOMA!” someone yelled. A few minutes later, we learned that the Court had declined to rule on Proposition 8. This left the district court’s 2012 ruling on Prop 8 in effect, meaning that California is a marriage equality state again. As my friends and I started to walk back to the metro, we could hear that somewhere in the crowd, what sounded like a small choir was singing the Star Spangled Banner acapella.
The Supreme Court’s ruling has special importance for those of us who are both disabled and LGBT. Access to health care is crucial for many people with disabilities, and legal marriage allows people to share health insurance with their spouses. Hospital visitation, another right that comes with marriage, is also an important issue for many people with disabilities. This was illustrated in April, when Roger Gorley was arrested for refusing to leave his partner’s hospital room, although both men had legal power of attorney to make medical decisions for each other if the need arose. Given that people with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty, the economic benefits of filing joint taxes are also important for our community.
People with disabilities also face barriers to marriage that non-disabled people in the US do not face. Several weeks ago, Bryon Murray, a regional representative for Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered, spoke at the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disability conference. Bryon, who is married with children, spoke about the Social Security marriage penalty as a pressing problem facing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. If two people receiving SSI benefits marry, their benefits are reduced, on the grounds that a couple living together does not need as much income as two people living apart. However, the income provided from SSI is already so low that in many cases it is unrealistic to expect that two people can get by on the reduced benefits they will receive if they marry. Additionally, the marriage penalty reduces the asset cap, from $2,000/person before the marriage, to $3,000 for the couple after the marriage. This makes it very difficult for a married couple who both receive benefits to save money in case of an emergency. However, losing SSI eligibility is not an option for many people, especially those who depend on Medicaid to cover high treatment costs.
The SSI marriage penalty prevents many people with disabilities from exercising their rights to marry and start a family. It is not the only such challenge that disabled Americans face. Adults under guardianship do not have the power to make their own life decisions, including marriage. And many people with disabilities face discrimination when they wish to adopt, conceive, or raise children. The overturning of DOMA was a great moment for marriage equality in the United States, but the fight is not over. Bryon Murphy, speaking about marriage penalties at the NACDD conference, said, “Now that more people can get married, more people are going to have this problem.”
For queer people with disabilities, there are more battles to be won before we truly have equal access to marriage and family. We should absolutely celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision – and then we should roll our sleeves up and get back to fighting the good fight.
- Social Security Act – What the Law States
- Youth in Action! Becoming a Stronger Self-Advocate
- Blazing the Trail: A New Direction for Youth Development and Leadership: Youth Call-to-Action
By Zoe Gross, Senior, Vassar College, Patricia Morrissey Disability Policy Fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership’s Center for Workforce Development