Ellen "Lennie" Gerber (left) and Pearl Berlin
Elderly N.C. Couples With Severe Medical Issues Demand Marriage Rights

By Michelle Garcia

Originally published on Advocate.com April 11 2014 1:38 PM ET

Three lesbian couples have filed suit in North Carolina, demanding that the state recognize their marriages from other states due to severe, life-threatening medical issues that each of the couples is dealing with.

Among them is Ellen "Lennie" Gerber and Pearl Berlin of High Point, an elderly couple, who have been together for 47 years and married in Maine last year. Berlin is in fragile condition, after suffering from a fall, which caused broken ribs and internal bleeding.

"As Pearl's spouse, I want and need to be by her side the whole time in any medical emergency," Gerber said in an American Civil Liberties Union statement this week. "The idea of Pearl having to go through any sort of emergency alone, or have another person make decisions for her is devastating to me."

Jane Blackburn and Lyn McCoy of Greensboro have been together for 20 years and got married in Washington, D.C., in 2011. Right now, however, Blackburn is dealing with stage IV breast cancer.

"If Jane dies without the state recognizing our marriage, we'll never be able to have the dignity of other married couples," McCoy said, according to the ACLU. "[A]nd there is no guarantee that I will be able to recoup the benefits that we would have been entitled to if it had happened during her lifetime."

Esmeralda Mejia and Christina Ginter-Mejia of Hickory have been together for 19 years, and the couple, who married in Maryland last year, are raising a 7-year-old boy. After a decorated Army career, Mejia was forced to retire upon learning that she had cervical cancer, and later finding a tumor in her left lung. When Mejia experienced liver failure, she was airlifted to Charlotte, N.C., and hospitalized for 144 days, but Ginter-Mejia was not allowed even a single day of family medical leave from her job, because their marriage is not recognized in their home state. Ginter-Mejia is their son's sole legal parent, so if Mejia dies, he won't receive the family benefits from Esmerelda's military service.

The three couples are represented by the ACLU of North Carolina and the law firms Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, and Ellis & Winters LLP.

This is the second lawsuit to challenge North Carolina's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage. Because of their medical conditions, the plaintiffs are requesting swift action from the court. The other lawsuit, filed by Shana Carignan and Megan Parker of Greensboro, is also related to health issues. Their son Jax has cerebral palsy, but he is unable to get the health coverage he requires — which is available through Carignan's health insurance — because Carignan cannot adopt him legally.

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