Op-ed: The Problem With Pennsylvania

By Victoria A. Brownworth

Originally published on Advocate.com September 17 2013 4:03 AM ET

If you’re gay or lesbian, live in Pennsylvania, and want to get married, you’d better move.

Pennsylvania has one of the most oppressive laws against same-sex marriage in the country and until very recently had no one to challenge it. But that challenge was short-lived, alas.

It was sad news for Pennsylvanians when Commonwealth Court judge Dan Pellegrini issued an order Thursday requiring Montgomery County register of wills D. Bruce Hanes to stop issuing marriage licenses to lesbian and gay couples

More than 200 such licenses had been issued by Hanes since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. Hanes said after the ruling that he thought Pennsylvania’s draconian law against same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, and he had also stated that he did not want to be on the wrong side of history.

Hanes, 66, has practiced law for several decades and was elected twice to his county position. He told local news media that he thought the licenses were an "equal privilege issue." Hanes had made the decision to issue the licenses after Attorney General Kathleen Kane said she would not prosecute any more DOMA-related cases, as she was not going to stand up for the state’s repressive law.

Hanes and Kane are both Democrats, but Gov. Tom Corbett is a Republican, and the state legislature has a significant Republican majority. The only Democratic county in the state is Philadelphia.

Immediately after the Supreme Court decision, the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit on behalf of 12 same-sex couples who want to get married. Whitewood v. Corbett names Bucks County register of wills Donald Petrille Jr. and Washington County register of wills Mary Jo Poknis as codefendants in the case for refusing to issue marriage licences to two same-sex couples.

Hanes began issuing the marriage licenses in late July. On August 6 he was sued by the Pennsylvania Department of Health to stop him from issuing licenses. The department issued a writ of mandamus ordering Hanes to "perform his duties under the Pennsylvania Marriage Law’s definition of the term marriage as a civil contract by which one man and one woman take each other for husband and wife."

The writ accused Hanes of violating the state’s marriage law and causing "untold harm to the public," and ordered that he "immediately cease and desist from issuing marriage licenses to individuals of the same gender."

He didn’t.

But that all ended last week with the court order.

And so too did the hopes of other same-sex couples in Pennsylvania. Like me and my partner.

I’ve watched over the past few years as state after state throughout the Northeast has gotten marriage equality. My sister, who lives in Maine, suggested my partner and I come up there to be married. My nephew, who lives in Seattle, suggested we go out there to be married. Friends in Connecticut invited us to get married at their home. A friend in Maryland offered her home, as did another in Delaware. A former editor offered his apartment in New York. We could also drive across the bridge to New Jersey — a half hour and $5 for the toll — and have a civil union.

But when I get married, I want it to be here, in Philadelphia, with my friends and family.

Governor Corbett, however, would prefer I never marry. At least not to a woman. If I wanted to marry a man — even some stranger off the street — I could do it tomorrow. But my partner of 14 years? The U.S. Supreme Court decision notwithstanding, there is no Philly wedding in my near future.

My partner and I had discussed going to Montgomery County and getting a license from the lovely Mr. Hanes, as much for his decency (he’s been married for 42 years to his wife and thinks marriage is excellent) as for us. But I know my state, and I knew it would come crashing down on the social justice party Hanes was throwing in MontCo. They don’t call us Pennsyltucky for nothing — the politics of our state are backward.

One of the reasons we are the only state in the Northeast without either marriage equality or civil unions is thar although we read blue for presidential elections — albeit not by much — we are a red state the remainder of the time. The blue tip of Philly, the fifth largest city in America, carries the state in national elections along with the more purple Pittsburgh. But the rest of the state is, as President Obama famously said when he was running for president in 2008, "clinging to their Bibles and their guns."

Too right.

Pennsylvania is the most conservative of the northeastern states, and that conservativism is both what created the law prohibiting same-sex marriage and what has maintained it even as similar laws have been struck down in neighboring states.

Yet more than many states, Pennsylvania needs and deserves marriage equality because our demographic cries out for it.

We are a poor state. Overall we rank 21st, but Philadelphia is the poorest of the 10 largest cities, with one in three people on food stamps and/or living at the poverty level. Marriage is, quite simply, more cost-effective than being single. If people in love want to marry, as my partner and I do, then why shouldn’t we be able to pool our meager resources and do so? Many lesbians and gay men in Philadelphia would benefit from marriage being legal in the state because so many of us bear extra financial burdens as unmarried couples, a burden we can ill afford.

But it isn’t just that marriage would benefit poor and working-class lesbians and gay men. It would also benefit older Pennsylvanians, among them many lesbians and gay men, some of whom have been coupled for decades. Pennsylvania has the oldest population after Florida. Statistics show older people benefit greatly from marriage, and they live longer if they are happily partnered.

Marriage keeps people younger, keeps them more mentally alert, and also benefits them financially. So in a state with a large elderly population like Pennsylvania, being able to marry, while sharing love, caretaking, and finances would greatly improve the quality of life for many older lesbians and gay men in Pennsylvania.

For people like my partner and me, who are middle-aged, the financial benefit would be immense. At present we both pay for health insurance — at a cost of nearly $2,000 per month. But if we were married, that amount would drop by almost half, as I would be covered by her health insurance, which is partially paid for by her employer.

There are myriad other perks of marriage that would benefit us financially and make it possible for us to live a less stringent, hand-to-mouth existence.
And then there are the hospitals. I have been in sketchy health for some time, suffering from MS as well as a serious lung condition. In the past two years I have been in the hospital a dozen or so times, each time in critical condition.

We’ve been fortunate in that our local hospital thus far has accepted our relationship and let her be with me when I am there. But that could change easily. And I always have to explain her relationship to me at the start of treatment so she can come into the cubicle with me in the emergency room or stay with me past visiting hours in my room and hope that the nurses on duty will be supportive.

Married couples don’t have to do this.

When my partner had a freak accident a couple of years ago, I alerted one of her family members, who came to the hospital and immediately took over with her doctors as if I wasn’t there. I found myself almost yelling in the emergency room, explaining that I was her wife.

Even though I wasn’t.

Next year is a pivotal one in Pennsylvania, due to the upcoming election and a governor with one of the worst approval ratings in the country. Corbett may use marriage equality — banning it — an issue in his reelection to garner more votes from the red middle of the state.

The celebrations after the DOMA ruling were, apparently, premature. In the states with marriage equality, life is exponentially better for lesbian and gay couples who don’t just have the freedom to marry but now also have the societal approval that is so desperately desired by so many and all the benefits that accrue to that. But for the rest of us, like here in Pennsylvania, the wait for change to come could literally be killing us.

VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, as well as the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has appeared in the The New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer,  Nation, and Village Voice, among others. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired and is a contributing editor at Curve and Lambda Literary. Her most recent book, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth, is the winner of the Moonbeam Award for Cultural/Historical Fiction 2012. Her novella Ordinary Mayhem won Honorable Mention in Best Horror 2012. She lives in Philadelphia with her partner, the painter Maddy Gold. Follow her @VABVOX.