Think of what it would mean for someone who has been with their partner for decades to confront losing a spouse, while the state they live in insists they’re not really married. That’s exactly what many same-sex couples face in North Carolina.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of North Carolina recently filed a new lawsuit asking a court to grant relief for three North Carolina families in desperate situations by overturning North Carolina’s ban on marriage recognition for same-sex couples.
Our clients — three lesbian couples in long-term, loving, and committed relationships — have long been pillars of their community yet North Carolina law treats them as second-class citizens, denying them respect of their marriages.
Because of their age and medical conditions, these couples have a substantial fear that one of them could pass away before their marriage is recognized by North Carolina, depriving them forever of the dignity state-recognition of their marriage would bring.
Ellen “Lennie” Gerber and Pearl Berlin have been together for 48 years and were married in Maine in 2013, though they have lived in North Carolina for more than 40 years. Pearl is 89 years old and was hospitalized three times over the past two years, most recently for having suffered a fall where she hit her head, incurred internal bleeding, and broke three ribs.
“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,” Lennie says. They worry that Pearl may die before their marriage is recognized in North Carolina. “It would only make things worse at a time of tremendous grief and loss if I were not listed on her death certificate as her spouse,” Lennie says, “which would demean the relationship we’ve built over 48 years and be an insult to her memory.”
Lyn McCoy and Jane Blackburn of Greensboro have been a couple for 22 years. One year later after they were married in 2011, Jane was diagnosed with breast cancer, and although she is undergoing chemotherapy and other treatments, the cancer has progressed to a Stage IV diagnosis and has spread to her bones.
“North Carolina is our home, and it’s important for us to have our love and our commitment to each other recognized here before it’s too late,” Jane says.
Esmerelda Mejia and Christina Ginter-Mejia of Hickory have been together 19 years and were recently married in Maryland. Esme is a decorated retired Army major who served in Desert Storm and received the Bronze Star, among other accolades. She left the Army after being diagnosed with cervical cancer. Four years later, she received a second cancer diagnosis for a tumor in her left lung. She has undergone many procedures, including surgery to remove the upper lobe of her lung and three ribs and a liver transplant. When Esme has been hospitalized, Christina has been unable to take family leave to care for her because the state does not recognize their relationship. And as a veteran, Esme’s legally recognized children would be entitled to significant benefits. Because the state will not allow Esme to adopt the son she and her spouse have been raising for the past seven years, he is not considered her legal child and is thus ineligible for these protections.
These three families want what any spouse and parent wants: the ability to help sick loved ones during medical procedures and emergencies. North Carolina’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples makes it harder for them to protect those dearest to them. Having lived in a loving and committed relationship for decades, they should not have to face the end of life (and, for the surviving spouse, the thought of losing their life partner) with the knowledge that their community refuses to recognize the worth and solemnity of their relationship in ways it does for others. They deserve all the support they can get, not the indignity and grief of knowing their home state treats them as legal strangers.
Rose Saxe is a senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s LGBT Rights Project. Chris Brook is legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina.