Terry Starrett lost her partner of 20 years, Pat McQuiston, to pancreatic cancer last May.
Together, the two had created a Jewish family. They had two children, and McQuiston had converted to Judaism in 2010, just prior to her and Starrett’s son becoming a bar mitzva at Rodef Shalom.
After their 18th year together, McQuiston and Starrett had a wedding ceremony, officiated by Rabbi Sharyn Henry, at Rodef Shalom.
But their union was not, and is not, recognized in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
The couple had planned to go to Washington, D.C., at the end of the summer to legally tie the knot, but then McQuiston got sick. That’s when Starrett began to realize the ramifications of being denied the right to legally marry.
When Starrett requested to take time off from work through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to care for her spouse, that request was refused.
“I was told that any FMLA was denied, and that if I took the time off, disciplinary action, including firing, could take place,” said Starrett, a nurse educator.
Although Starrett eventually worked with her immediate supervisor to arrange some personal time off, she was not entitled to the same benefits she would have had if she and her partner had been able to be legally married in Pennsylvania.
After McQuiston died, Starrett faced other problems.
“Our children’s medical coverage was cut off the day she died,” Starrett said. “It was state insurance. They are now under my insurance, but for two weeks, they didn’t have any. And I think I am going to run into more problems. I can’t get her social security (McQuiston was retired) and her social security was a significant portion of our income. Now that’s cut off.
“Pat was a big political person,” Starrett continued. “We just kept saying we wished DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) would go away. It didn’t go away quickly enough.”
Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court’s favorable decisions regarding same-sex marriage may not have been quick enough for Starrett and McQuiston, but a sense of optimism spread through the local gay, Jewish community, despite the fact that gays still cannot legally marry in Pennsylvania.
Wednesday’s 5-4 ruling, in which the high court struck down part of DOMA, has cleared the way for gay couples who have married in one of the 13 states that allow those unions, to claim Social Security survivor benefits, military and health payments, and joint filing status in federal income taxes. Over 1,000 federal benefits will now be extended to married gay couples.
The Supreme Court’s second decision regarding California’s Proposition 8, although decided on procedural grounds, re-establishes the right for gays to marry in California.
“I’m enthusiastic,” said Rabbi Joe Hample, spiritual leader of Tree of Life Congregation in Morgantown, W.Va. Hample married Barry Wendell— who has worked as a cantorial soloist and b’nai mitzva tutor — in 2008 in California, before Proposition 8 went into effect.
“This is huge,” Hample said. “This is amazing. This is like the parting of the Red Sea. The intangible changes are extremely welcome.”
But while Hample and Wendell’s marriage is now recognized by the federal government, it is still not recognized in West Virginia.
“But the historical momentum is plain,” said Hample, who was ordained at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.
Although a recent Pew poll found that 51 percent of Americans say they support legalizing gay marriage — with 42 percent opposing it — Hample thinks most opposition comes not from the secular community, but from the faith community, which, as a rabbi, he finds challenging.
“As a rabbi, I’ve seen a lot of animosity in recent years between the gay community and the religious community,” he said. “That is painful to me, because I have a foot in both camps.”
“Most clergy outside of liberal Judaism are probably hostile to the Supreme Court decision,” he continued. “It’s painful to me because these folks are my colleagues. It’s uncomfortable to know my political adversaries are so up close and personal. They are always citing the Bible, and I have to confront that because I am also selling the Bible on a daily basis.”
For Hample, the wisdom of the Torah has to be taken as a whole, and the “anti-gay verses” must be read along with other texts in order to find a “deeper truth,” he said.
“We have to work on reconciliation,” he said. “We have to learn how to respect our differences.”
Other members of the Pittsburgh, gay Jewish community shared in Hample’s optimism that the tide is now turning in favor of marriage equality.
Jack Protetch has been with his partner for seven years. The two have not considered marriage, though, because it is not legal in Pennsylvania. Still, Wednesday’s decisions gave Protetch reason to be hopeful for the future.
“I certainly feel optimistic,” he said. “And I’m usually a glass half empty kind of guy. But some of the initiatives are moving marriage equality more quickly than I anticipated. I think it’s a tremendous step forward for marriage equality across the country. They just knocked more holes in the glass ceiling.”
Likewise, Paul Lebovitz, a local gastroenterologist who has been in a committed relationship for 13 years, feels a sense of hope going forward.
“I was at a meeting at work when I got a text about [the court decisions],” he said. “It brought me tears of joy. It really makes me have a lot of hope about the future.”
But, “I also think it’s incredible that we even have to have these discussions,” he added.
Deb Polk, the secretary of Bet Tikvah, a local congregation for “the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, their family and friends,” has been with her partner for 23 years. The two have a 6-year-old daughter.
“I think at this point we would be very interested in getting married,” she said, although she is skeptical about gaining the right to marry in Pennsylvania.
“But I am just completely thrilled,” she added. “It’s the right thing. And it’s really exciting to see this happening in my lifetime.”
Evan Wolfson, the Squirrel Hill native and Harvard-trained attorney who founded Freedom to Marry — the campaign to win marriage equality nationwide — sees the recent decisions as granting “significant momentum” to the movement.
“The Supreme Court turned the federal government from being the number one discriminator against gay couples to being on the side of freedom to marry,” he told the Chronicle. “But we still have 37 states that deny the freedom to marry. We still have to implement freedoms and protections. We still have a lot of work to do. The ruling didn’t tell states what to do, but it did say that the federal government could not discriminate.”
“We have tremendous wind in our sails,” Wolfson said, “but we have to keep on sailing.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)