Florida LGBT Families Still Waiting for Clarity on Gay Marriage

On Friday nights, Arlene Goldberg and her late wife, Carol Goldwasser, loved to share home-cooked meals together in their Fort Myers home. Afterward they'd sit on the couch and watch TV, cuddling with their fluffy white dogs Toto and Lacey. If there was a Yankees game on, you can bet Goldwasser was watching it.

Goldberg and Goldwasser were together for 47 years, and among their favorite things to do together was playing Canasta with their dear friends Barbara and Shelley. Goldwasser was an avid player, and, according to Goldberg, "she was really good at it."

In 2011, when same-sex marriage became legal in their home state of New York, the couple traveled there to be married. Though they didn't need a piece of paper to ensure their devotion to each other or to keep them together, they believed it would help them receive the benefits that married heterosexual couples have.

Goldwasser had scleroderma, a rare autoimmune disease that causes thickening of the body's connective tissues. There are two kinds of scleroderma: a localized type that affects the skin and a systemic kind that affects blood vessels and major organs. Carol was afflicted with the latter, for which there is no cure.

As Goldwasser's scleroderma progressed, Goldberg retired from her 14-year position as a facility manager for Lynx Services so she could spend quality time with her dying wife. "During these past two years, she was in constant pain," said Goldberg, 67. "I only wish I could have taken some of her pain to give her some relief. I would have done it graciously and with love."

On March 13, Goldwasser passed away at age 66, leaving her grief-stricken wife behind. Since 62 percent of Florida voters chose to amend the state's constitution to recognize marriages between heterosexual couples back in 2008, the state did not recognize their New York marriage. Goldberg was left without the many rights and protections heterosexual couples have and as a result was not eligible to receive Goldwasser's social security benefits. Because of the lack of money, she lost their home.

A month after Goldwasser's death, Goldberg joined a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), later consolidated with Brenner v. Scott, to challenge Florida's ban on same-sex marriage at the federal level. Though Goldberg had faced many years of being legally invisible, the tide changed when U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in her favor in September, stating the ban to be unconstitutional.

"The Florida provisions that prohibit the recognition of same-sex marriages lawfully entered elsewhere, like the federal provision, are unconstitutional," wrote Hinkle in his ruling. "So is the Florida ban on entering same-sex marriages."

Though his decision did not bring marriage equality to Florida until January of 2015, it did come with an immediate stipulation to amend Goldwasser's death certificate and list Goldberg as her wife.

On October 8, Arlene Goldberg held the fixed death certificate of her beloved wife with trembling hands; her green eyes welled with tears. The piece of paper was the first document of its kind issued by Florida to recognize a same-sex marriage. For Goldberg, however, it was a dignity that had been paid nearly a year too late.

"I thought that Carol would be so proud that I fought for what was due to us. To be recognized as the married couple that we were, it was so very bittersweet," Goldberg said. "Somehow looking at the death certificate actually confirmed that I would never again see the wonderful person I loved and who loved me. I thought about being alone now after 47 years of love and hugs and no longer feeling those arms tight around me, warming my being. Then I remembered how very sick she was and how much pain she was constantly in and I knew it was meant to be."

Goldberg hopes that her struggles do not become the narrative for the next generation of LGBT couples. Her financial hardship this past year is not unique and brings to light the complex struggles so many gay couples across the Sunshine State have dealt with for years while the legal recognition of same-sex marriage was nonexistent. These same hardships are still the reality for LGBT individuals living in the 13 states that still do not recognize same-sex couples, such as Texas and Georgia.

"I believe that by marriage equality being stalled [for the remaining states without it], LGBT families are being hurt because it delays legal acknowledgment of their marriage, which in turn prevents them from accessing the many benefits that should be legally theirs as married couples," said Goldberg. "Financially, it affects those in our [LGBT] community who cannot access survivor benefits due to them from social security. Even though it is a federal benefit, social security is managed by the state one resides in."

According to the Human Rights Campaign, more than 70 percent of Americans live in a state where same-sex marriage is recognized. Though marriage equality has swept the nation in the past year, the intersection of civil rights and religious liberty has nevertheless caused an uproar among many Americans.

Connie Siu, a former statewide outreach organizer for Equality Florida, one of the state's leading LGBT rights' organizations, compares this heated disagreement among Americans to the division of our nation during the Civil War. Though many religious groups have urged the issue of state bans against same-sex marriage be resolved by the people in each state through vote, Siu believes this could potentially further stall marriage equality from coming to rest of the United States.

"It's a big risk to rely on the democratic process in bringing marriage equality to [the remaining states] because there are very religious communities in every state that are vehemently against same-sex couples getting married," Siu said. "Our justice system has a duty to protect the equal rights of minorities and outlaw their discrimination."

Currently, couples across the U.S. are waiting to see how the Supreme Court rules this June on whether states are Constitutionally obliged to recognize same-sex marriages. Legal experts say one of the best predictors of how the justices might rule lies in Justice Kennedy's majority opinion in United States v. Windsor, in which he stated the Defense of Marriage Act's definition of marriage as between one man and one woman violated "the Constitution's guarantee of equality." 

The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Howard Simon, who is one of the individuals behind the ACLU case that Goldberg is a part of, believes that religious liberty does not come with the right to discriminate and deprive others of rights or equal protections.

"Some people fear the consequences of the civil rights revolution that we're a part of," said Simon. "They fear that recognizing same-sex couples might violate their religious principles, and because of this they want to hold on to the right to discriminate. All of this has been said before, though, almost 50 years ago when [the U.S. Supreme Court] struck down the prohibition against interracial marriage."

Another Florida same-sex couple was also vulnerable while the state's ban was in effect was Heather Brassner, 42, and her girlfriend, Jennifer Feagin, 45. Brassner, like Goldberg, challenged the state's ban in court last year in the hopes of one day marrying Feagin. 

For Brassner, the fight for equality meant protecting the person she enjoys going out with to Howley's for Cheeseburgers. The person she loves spending time with in their South Florida home, whether it be reading together or watching American Horror Story. Before marriage equality came to Florida, Brassner was scared that if something happened to her that Jennifer would not be protected under the law. 

"I feel safe, loved unconditionally, and complete with Jennifer," she said. "[The marriage equality movement] is about the certain rights we were denied because we were not able to get married, such as hospital visitations, the right to make medical decisions, and [Jennifer's] ability to stay in our home if something were to happen to me."

Though many same-sex couples expect the justices to rule in favor of legally recognizing gay marriages, they are still on pins and needles because the court could (in a nightmarish scenario) make a decision that stifles the recent strides for LGBT rights. 

"All I want is to love and live in peace of heart and mind," an exasperated Brassner concluded. "And, unfortunately, until these issues are resolved, I don't think I'll have either."

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Jonathan Kendall
Contact: Jonathan Kendall