The Department of Veteran Affairs has denied Tracey and her wife Maggie marital benefits due to them being a same-sex couple.
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Editor’s note: This story has been updated since first posted.

 

A local disabled veteran and PCC alumnus is still fighting for equal rights even though the Supreme Court has ruled the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court decision basically said they will not uphold DOMA, which states that marriage is only between a man and a woman, and that each state may decide whether they want to legalize same-sex marriage. While the Supreme Court decision has given many people the impression that there is now equality for those in same-sex marriages, but that is definitely not the case.

The Department of Veteran Affairs defines a spouse as “a person of the opposite sex who is a wife or a husband,” known as Title 38.  Since Tracey Cooper-Harris is married to another woman, the VA will not grant the couple marital benefits.

The couple’s case file reads “Tracey Cooper-Harris and Maggie Cooper-Harris v. United States of America…” and claims a violation of equal protection under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Where it all began

Tracey Cooper-Harris, 40, and Maggie Cooper-Harris, 36, were married in Van Nuys Nov. 1, 2008 when same-sex marriage was legal in California. The couple now lives in Pasadena. Tracey took general education classes at PCC from 2007 to the summer of 2010.

Tracey served approximately 10 years of active duty in the U.S. Army, plus an additional two years with the South Carolina National Guard and Army Reserves. Tracey, who earned the rank of sergeant, has also received more than two dozen medals and was honorably discharged in 2003.

“I was an Animal Care Specialist, so I helped the veterinary officer provide care and treatment to animals in the military,” said Tracey. She worked mainly with military police dogs, but also helped horses and mascots from service academies.

Tracey was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010, which the VA has determined was connected to her military service. Because of this, the couple is fighting for dependency benefits that married veterans receive to help with Tracey’s medical expenses and to give Maggie financial security in the event of Tracey’s death.

Maggie recalls feeling alone when the VA denied her benefits. “[It seemed that] it didn’t matter to anyone else that this discrimination was happening,” she said.

Case Details

“We filed [the case] because Maggie was not able to be considered as my dependent,” said Tracey. The original claim was filed in April 2011.  The Southern Poverty Law Center, representing the couple, filed the case in February 2012 with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

“Currently, we are waiting for the court to release its decision on our motion for summary judgment,” said Apreill Hartsfield, communications associate for SPLC. A summary judgment is when a case is disposed of without a trial.

“Oral arguments were heard on [the summary judgment motion] in February. There are no other scheduled hearings for this case at this time,” said Hartsfield. Until the courts make a decision, the couple’s lives remain in limbo.

Caren Short, SPLC lawyer, one of the attorneys representing the couple, took the case after Tracey emailed her explaining their predicament. Short’s father is retired army, so the veteran’s struggle was of personal interest. According to Short, she was excited to help fight for this traditionally disadvantaged group. WilmerHale is co-counsel with SPLC for the couple.

“[Tracey and Maggie’s] story brought to light an issue that hadn’t been addressed,” said Short. She wanted to help acknowledge Tracey’s service and Maggie’s sacrifice.

Once Short took their case, the couple felt there was someone who was willing to help. “It was the first moment where we felt that someone cared,” said Maggie. “We were so grateful. It was a blessing and a relief.”

On Aug. 14 the California Supreme court ruled that Proposition 8, stating marriage is only between a man and a woman, was unconstitutional. According to Short, this does not affect Tracey and Maggie’s case.

Big First Step

When the Supreme Court ruled that DOMA was unconstitutional, Maggie was at home and Tracey was at work.

Maggie said she felt a flood of emotions and had uncontrollable tears when she heard the news. “I was up early checking websites. When I first read the words, I was stunned, shocked, and excited,” she said.

Tracey found out from a mass of text messages and notifications on Facebook. “I felt like a weighted burden had been taken off,” she said. “It’s one more step closer to equal rights.”

The moment of elation turned to passion and frustration when they realized how much more work had to be done.

“It’s frustrating to know that [same sex marriage] only applies in certain states,” said Maggie. She said that it is hard living in a country where there isn’t marriage equality.

“Let’s celebrate this moment, but we still have to get the rest of the country on track as well,” she said. Tracey added, striking down DOMA was a huge first step, but it was only the first step.

Comments

  1. There is no good reason to deny that we must keep evolving until an adult, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, monogamy or polyamory, race, or religion is free to marry any and all consenting adults. The limited same-gender freedom to marry is a great and historic step, but is NOT full marriage equality, because equality “just for some” is not equality. Let’s stand up for EVERY ADULT’S right to marry the person(s) they love. Get on the right side of history!

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