CA Rep. Linda Sanchez introduces the Social Security Equality Act of 2012 at a news conference in Washington DC on Friday, April 27, 2012. LA Gay & Lesbian Center CEO Lorri Jean stands beside her in red (Photo via Rep Sanchez's Facebook page)
Let's face it: much of the LGBT movement has one massive Peter Pan complex. We won't grow up. We don't want to go to school just to learn to be a parrot and recite a silly rule. Nope, not us. We're here, we're queer and everyone just has to get used to it!
But while the minds, hearts and spirits of LGBT movement founders and Stonewall activists still stir with the fight for real freedom, the body is aging – whether we like it or not. And with aging comes limitations, dependency, and the fear of being forced back into the closet just to get proper and safe treatment. For couples who have shared lives and expenses together, losing a husband or wife could also mean losing financial freedom while trying to survive a broken heart. Suddenly being a second class citizen in the United States of America hits home: weare the cause we’ve been fighting for.
Two years ago, on April 11, 2010, Lorri Jean, CEO of the LA Gay & Lesbian Center officially launched the Rock for Equality campaign in conjunction with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Aids Community Action Foundation. The campaign noted that LGBT workers pay into the Social Security system but are denied benefits when a partner dies, including retirement benefits, disability insurance, survivor benefits and burial expenses. Two years ago they estimated that since 2000, those benefits totaled more than $2 billion, depriving LGBT older taxpayers of more than $120 million in Social Security benefits every year. According to the calculating "Denied" clock on their website, as of 5:03pm Pacific time today, the total was $2,434,079 and counting.
Jean got the idea for the campaign after hearing about Alice Herman, a senior lesbian who not only lost her legally married wife Sylvia, but the other half of her duel-income - forcing her to leave her home and live in her car. She explained the urgency:
So many people in our own community don't realize that the Social Security Administration discriminates against us and how the loss of those benefits can devastate the lives not only of LGBT seniors, but of children whose non-biological parents die. At the Center we see first-hand the impact of this inexcusable discrimination on the surviving partners who come to us for help. Whether they are LGBT seniors now left alone, or parents whose children are not provided benefits, they suffer. Nothing is as heartbreaking as seeing an elderly member of our community being forced to move out of her long-time home in the midst of her grief because she is not entitled to survivor benefits! It's truly criminal.
Among the speakers at a rally of about 700 people that day was Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood), a member of the House Subcommittee on Social Security, who announced that she would sponsor legislation to provide equal Social Security benefits for same-sex couples:
“I don’t think it’s right that Americans should be treated differently by the country they love because of who they love. Right now, same-sex marriage couples pay equally into a system that they don’t receive equal benefits from in return....Shame on this country for allowing that to happen.”
CA Rep. Linda Sanchez (in center, in pink), LA Gay & Lesbian Center CEO Lorri Jean, Brad Altman, actor George Takei, NLGTF ED Rea Carey, actor Hal Sparks, (Photo via Rep Sanchez's Facebook page)
But Sánchez's Social Security Equality Act of 2010 didn't go anywhere. Last Friday, April 27, Sanchez said she's trying again, announcing at a news conference in Washington DC that she's introducing the Social Security Equality Act of 2012 (H.R. 4609) to end a discriminatory policy that denies benefits to same-sex couples. In a statement, Sanchez said:
"No American should ever be treated differently by the country they love because of who they love. Social Security is based on a simple formula–work hard, pay into it with each paycheck, and be able to retire with dignity. This must apply to all Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation. It is time the Social Security Administration ends a misguided policy that discriminates against same-sex couples."
At the news conference were Jean, actor and LGBT activist George Takei and his husband Brad Altman, NGLTF's Rea Carey, actor/comedian Hal Sparks, S.A.G.E. (Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders) Executive Director Michael Adams, ACAF (AIDS Community Action Foundation) President Craig R. Miller and Alice Herman, now a Rock for Equality spokesperson. At the news conference, Jean said (see her complete remarks below):
[T]he Social Security Equality Act will make a crucial difference to countless elderly people who are struggling to survive because their own government has denied them the Social Security benefits their spouse's paid for and to which they are entitled. That's not only wrong, it's unAmerican."
The Social Security Equality Act of 2012 would require the Social Security Administration to provide spousal, survivor and death benefits to same sex couples in relationships that have been recognized by the state where they live. H.R. 4609 was introduced with 94 original co-sponsors and has been referred to the House Ways and Means Committee.
Here are two videos explaining the Rock for Equality campaign:
Here’s Part One of the LA rally in 2010 before the crowd of 700 marched to the Social Security Administration building to demand they change the policy:
After the Rock for Equality rally, about 700 people marched to the Social Security Administration building in Los Angeles demanding they change their antigay policy (Photo by Mark Hefflinger)
Here's what Lorri Jean said at the DC news conference:
"After retirement, the vast majority of Americans rely on our nation's Social Security program to help them survive. Married couples have the comfort of knowing that if the higher wage-earner dies first, his or her Social Security benefits will be passed on to the surviving spouse. Like my mom. My Dad was the primary breadwinner. When he died, my mother was entitled to his higher Social Security benefits of $2,300/month rather than her own monthly benefits of $300. That difference is what allows her to pay rent, buy food and live a modest life.
But outrageously, same-gender couples who are married--and same-sex couples prohibited from marrying in their state--don’t have the same comfort my parents had.
We are here today because same-sex couples in this country pay into Social Security with every paycheck, just like everyone else, but we are denied the same benefits that other couples get.
This is not an abstract issue. Every single month, the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center provides programs and services to thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender seniors. Some come to participate in bereavement support groups or educational classes. Some come for medical care or a meal or even to attend our Senior Prom.
But too many come who are suffering because they were denied Social Security survivor benefits. We knew something had to be done. We teamed up with the AIDS Community Action Foundation, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force Action Fund and later SAGE to begin a campaign to change these unfair laws. And thanks to the leadership of Congresswoman Linda Sanchez and 94 members of Congress who are taking a stand against discrimination, against injustice, the Social Security Equality Act is being introduced today.
This Act will make a life-sustaining difference to real people in need: senior citizens who paid into Social Security with every paycheck, as did their higher-earning life-partners, yet are losing their homes and living in poverty because the Social Security system discriminates against them. Unlike my father, their spouses or life-partners did not die in comfort knowing that the Social Security benefits they earned would take care of the loved one they left behind.
The Social Security Equality Act will right this terrible wrong. Of course, we still need to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and do whatever is necessary to ensure that same-sex couples are given all of the rights that our straight brothers and sisters enjoy. But the Social Security Equality Act will make a crucial difference to countless elderly people who are struggling to survive because their own government has denied them the Social Security benefits their spouse's paid for and to which they are entitled. That's not only wrong, it's un-American."