Sandy was a patient of mine more than a decade ago and I was fascinated the moment I met her. She was Native American and worked for the telephone company, climbing telephone poles, repairing lines. She had worked for the company for more than 30 years.
And she had been with her partner Corine for 22 years. She dreamed of marrying the woman she had loved so long and yearned for the time when gay marriage would be legal. Sandy and Corine had been through so much together: with Corine's growing disability from MS and the challenges of being a family in a world that largely considered them aberrant. But they were a loving family. Together, they had raised a daughter -- from Corine's brief marriage -- who grew up to be a successful businesswoman and a traditional suburban wife and mother of three young children.
Life was good until management changed and Sandy's new boss arrived. He was a righteous man who called himself a Christian. But he tormented Sandy about her masculine appearance, about being gay, and about being Native American. Nearing retirement, Sandy was reluctant to challenge her boss and kept her pain private. She began to suffer from stress and developed a rare stress-linked autoimmune disease that caused her body's mucous membranes to swell and blister. She was often in agony and put in her application to retire. After some opposition from management, her retirement was approved and the agreed upon date was set.
The last time I saw her, Sandy was ebullient. She talked of plans to move with Corine back to their native Arizona, to live on the reservation, close to the land, and in their Native American culture, in a close-knit community that welcomed them with love and with joy. She dreamed that someday she would be able to marry Corine legally and "we will throw a big party with friends and music and we will dance together at last as married partners!"
Sandy loved to dance -- expressing joy with a graceful little waltz across the floor of the therapy room. And, even as she danced her joy that day, she told me of her serious plans. She was going to take her retirement pension as a lump sum and transfer it to an IRA at her bank, making Corine the beneficiary. A look of pain crossed her face and she stopped dancing. "Would you believe the company won't recognize my partner of 22 years as a beneficiary if I leave it for them to administer?" she asked. "If anything were to happen to me, Corine couldn't get my pension -- like married heterosexuals can. That's why I'm taking a lump sum. So she'll be taken care of if the worst happens."
But the worst case scenario was quickly forgotten in the joy of the moment. In four days, Sandy would be officially retired. She danced out of the office and through the waiting room, greeting my next patient -- a sweet young preschool teacher and mother of two -- with excitement. "Michelle! It's happening! I'm going to retire next week!" Beaming, Michelle jumped up to give her a congratulatory hug and Sandy swept her into a graceful waltz around the waiting room.
It was the last time I saw her alive. Two days later, Sandy woke up choking, the mucous membranes in her throat swelling. She dashed to use the bathroom and dress quickly for a trip to the emergency room. Then Corine heard a crash. She found Sandy on the bathroom floor, struggling to breathe. She called 911 but the paramedics could do little. Sandy was dead on arrival at the hospital.
And Corine, as well as being devastated at the loss of her partner, never saw a dime of her pension or Social Security -- because she was not, after all, Sandy's legal spouse.
And Sandy and Corine's story is made more heartbreaking by the fact that there are so many similar stories. One of the gay people bringing a case now before the Supreme Court had lost her spouse of many years -- whom she had legally married in Canada -- and because the federal government and the IRS did not recognize gay marriage as legal, she was socked with a six-figure tax bill on her partner's estate. If she had been the wife of a man with similar assets, she would never have paid a dime.
As debate and controversy swirls around the pros and cons of gay marriage, I'm puzzled by the opposition to it. Yes, I know that many deeply religious people feel that homosexuality is a an aberrant choice, an abomination. And I respect their right to feel that way. But should it mean that a significant segment of the population should be denied equal rights?
It isn't that most of these people choose to be gay. They simply are gay. Some studies in genetics and neurology indicate that homosexual men and women may have subtle physiological differences linked to their sexual orientation. Should they be penalized for an inborn trait?
My husband suffers from epilepsy -- and there was a time when our marriage would have been impossible because epileptics were barred from marriage. We were lucky geographically when we married in 1977. As late as 1980, some states in the U.S. forbade epileptics to marry.
And there was a time -- also not that long ago -- when interracial marriage was viewed with equal horror and far too many loving, committed couples were condemned to live in the shadows or, because of societal scorn or family pressures, to walk away from a treasured loved one. It wasn't until 1967 that anti-miscegenation laws were ruled unconstitutional in this country.
And, in the meantime, it has been perfectly legal for serial killers like Ted Bundy to marry and even father children while on Death Row.
It has been suggested that the dramatically changing public opinion on gay marriage -- with some 60% of Americans favoring equal marriage rights -- may be due to more gay men and lesbians coming out of the closet and more of us realizing that they are our friends and neighbors and family members. It's harder to stereotype and marginalize people we know and love.
It was a revelation, many years ago, when I held a man I loved and we both wept because we knew that being gay was not a choice for him. He was deeply religious and had wanted to marry and have a family, but was coming to the painful realization that his future would be quite different. And long before he celebrated who he was, he wept for the person he could never be.
It was a revelation, sometime later, as I got to know more and more gay and lesbian couples at work, in my suburban community and among circles of treasured friends and realized that their lives, their strengths and challenges as couples were not so different from our own.
It was a revelation when a former neighbor and dear friend who is gay and in a relationship spanning nearly 50 years called me to report that he had been besieged by a distant relative -- one of his few blood relatives still alive -- with whom he has never been close. She demanded that she be put on the title of his house and told him this made sense because "I'm your closest relative and your primary heir." She dismissed his partner of five decades as "your silly boyfriend." And he told me he was filled with hurt and anger and fear that this relative might compound the grief of his loss for the man he loved with outrageous claims on their shared fortune.
It was a revelation when my dear friend Tim greeted the news of his own son Stephen's coming out as gay with "I just hope he finds someone wonderful to love." And when Stephen and Devin, his partner of some years, married last year in New York, Tim was there to toast them. The picture of his tearful and loving tribute to his son and son-in-law, whom he calls simply "my son", is one of my all-time favorites.
And it was a revelation, as a psychotherapist, to see so many heterosexual marriages so quickly abandoned at the first signs of strain and, at the same time, so many loving and committed gay couples who weathered so much societal and familial disapproval through their years together and were still so stedfast in their love and devotion for each other. Among these special couples, Sandy and Corine stand out in my memory.
When one sees the reality of loving, committed relationships between same sex couples that could be an example to many heterosexual couples, judgments and reinforcing the status quo of marriage inequality just don't make sense.
For people who fear that allowing equal marriage rights for gays would somehow damage and undermine marriage, how about the 50% or so of heterosexual marriages that end in divorce? What about the impulsive or sham marriages of celebrities like Brittney Spears and her infamous 24 hour marriage to a childhood friend or Kim Kardashian and her million-dollar wedding and marriage that almost immediately hit the rocks? How about Bridezillas who focus relentlessly on the wedding and not at all on what it really means to be a partner? All of these could learn a great deal from some gay couples who have been stedfast in their love and devotion without the legal protections and privileges afforded the rest of us -- and too often abused.
For those who think that childless marriages would take us down an impossibly slippery slope, what about those of us who are heterosexual and childless -- by choice or because of infertility? Are our marriages less valid? And not all gay marriages are childless. Here in Arizona, two gay men are foster and adoptive parents to a dozen special needs children whom no one else wanted. They have been honored widely as exemplary parents. Many gay parents choose to have children with the help of sperm banks or surrogates. And some, like Sandy and Corine, raise children that one or both have had in previous heterosexual relationships. By all reports so far, children raised by gay parents are just as normal in all ways as children raised in traditional families.
Perhaps instead of worrying that someone else's choice of a mate will undermine the institution of marriage, we need to look within ourselves and our own relationships and ask what we can do to keep our own marriages strong and loving, setting an example for our children and grandchildren.
Marriage equality isn't some gracious gift we might -- or might not -- bestow on gay couples. It's something they should have had all along -- equal protection under the law, equal rights as citizens and taxpayers.
The issue is, nevertheless, highly controversial and emotional with strong feelings on both sides that need to be heard and respected. But one can only hope that the Supreme Court will make a decision that is wise and fair.
And when I dream this dream, I imagine Sandy somewhere dancing with joy that other gay couples might have the rights and protections that she and Corine did not live to enjoy.