Southwest Florida gay couples assessing rights after Supreme Court rulings

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NAPLES — On paper, Doug Ball and Frank Dowd married May 19, 2007, in a double wedding with a pair of close friends at a Toronto city hall.

The anniversary they celebrate, however, is June 17, 1982, their first official date when Ball invited his then-vegetarian love interest over to his Washington, D.C., apartment for dinner.

“He never left,” the retired lawyer laughs, ribbing his husband.

Neither date counts legally in Florida, though, even after a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling granting federal benefits to same-sex couples.

The 100-plus page trust the pair created for financial protection in a state that denies their marriage exists is neatly organized into a binder they have on hand at their North Naples home.

“This is the work-around,” Dowd explains, setting the tome down on stacks of Frank Lloyd Wright coffee table books.

A lawyer and librarian with decades spent in gay rights activism, they’ve tried to anticipate problems with a heavy dose of planning.

The have reciprocal wills, and note that the local hospital they go to has their information on file so they shouldn’t be denied access to each other in a medical emergency.

Now in their mid-60s, they agree they need to remember to photocopy the documents and put them in their glove compartments, lest there be a problem farther from home and a hospital prevents them from seeing each other.

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On a mid-week night in July, a group of retirees and young professionals — the single or betrothed or wedded — filled nearly every seat of a downtown Naples auditorium.

They wanted to know what, if anything, would become of their relationships current and future. Would there now be fewer steps in the highly choreographed dance some couples like Ball and Dowd have performed for decades?

The answer remains for most a “we’ll see.”

What the gay community got with the two Supreme Court rulings — one crippling the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and the other restoring marriage rights to same-sex couples in California — was a rallying cry.

“While we didn’t get a silver bullet, we really did get the next best thing,” Stratton Pollitzer, deputy director at Equality Florida, told the roughly 60 attendees at the information session at the Norris Center in Naples on Wednesday night.

“I think those court cases really have given many, many, people hope where there wasn’t any before,” Ball said the day after the meeting, which he attended with Dowd.

The couple rallied 15 people together since late 2012 to be Equality Florida’s Collier County-based steering committee.

The St. Petersburg-based equal rights group is drumming up support for a 2016 campaign to rescind Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage, which went into effect in 2008 with an amendment to the state constitution declaring the legal institution available to only “one man and one woman.”

No other combination is legally recognized here. But local couples have married legally in other states. They hoped the debilitation of DOMA would confer them federal benefits, rights and protections — 1,138 of them, as enumerated by the Human Rights Campaign, including Social Security, taxes, immigration laws, family and medical leave, and employee benefits for federal workers.

Daniel Tilley, an attorney with the ACLU of Florida, fielded questions at the event about what changes Florida’s married same-sex couples will see.

“I’ll give the very lawyerly response — it depends,” Tilley said.

“For certain programs, as long as you’re married somewhere, you’re going to get the benefit. For other benefits Florida is going to have to recognize your marriage. And of course, Florida doesn’t recognize your marriage,” he explained.

The ACLU has put out 14 fact sheets to explain to married, same-sex couples what the DOMA ruling means to them, especially in states like Florida.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, for example, is federally funded, but administered by the state. Same-sex couples in Florida likely won’t be recognized for the benefits, the organization maintains. For couples looking for access to veterans’ spousal benefits, if they lived in Florida but traveled to another state that recognizes same-sex marriages to marry, and returned to Florida, the Veterans Administration likely won’t recognize that union.

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In a show of hands, about half the attendees at Wednesday night’s event were married or planning on it soon. The challenges they face range from child adoption to taxes to health care, with importance for those issues ranging across the age scale.

There was agreement among the meeting’s leaders, however, that there’s a marked difference in the gay community’s attitude after the Supreme Court rulings.

It’s a positive one, according to Ball.

“Now, (with) those two cases together ... gay people hope we can move forward — even in stodgy old Florida,” he said.

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