Life After Kathy: A Widow's Story
During the month of April, SAGE will be featuring stories relating to the importance of marriage equality for LGBT older adults every Friday. These stories are also part of our SAGE Story series. Do you have a story you would like to share? Tell us today!
Lynne and Kathy Vantran celebrated the 18th of every month with, at the very least, a special dinner out together. They held the number sacred because on December 18, 1980, they met while serving in the military. Both were teenagers getting over relationships with ex-boyfriends, and as Lynne described it, “we were literally crying in our beer."
As they helped each other through their failed relationships, Lynne and Kathy could not help but notice the relationship that was forming between them. Little by little, they grew close together as they shared a deep secret. By June 18, 1981, Lynne and Kathy received special permission to move out of the army barracks, a reward for their excellent conduct as soldiers, and the couple moved in together to an apartment off-base.
For the next 29 years, until Kathy passed away in 2010 from cancer, Lynne and Kathy celebrated the date that they had met and committed to one another 348 times.
Otherwise a private couple who kept to themselves for fear of being outed, Lynne and Kathy found themselves having to disclose their relationship to their supervisors when, in the fall of 2007, Kathy was diagnosed with cancer. While married heterosexual partners can take time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to care for one another, this was not an option for Lynne and Kathy because they could not be married legally. So, they had to justify their relationship to others, and had to do it fast. Fortunately, both Lynne and Kathy's supervisors recognized their hard work, if not the inherent unfairness in the couple's having to ask for their permission, and granted the medical leave.
Similarly, at the hospital, Lynne says that she "lucked out" because she was able to prove herself useful to the nurses as she changed Kathy's bed sheets and picked up on other small chores. It did not, however, prevent her from having to obtain permission from hospital staff to spend the night with Kathy. Frequently, she would be asked, "How is she related to Kathy?" She brushed it off as a benign question, but the fact of the matter remains that a spouse in a heterosexual relationship would have been recognized immediately and granted all the rights that Lynne had to ask for, obtain, and defend.
"The biggest area of discrimination, where I really felt it, was after Kathy had passed,” Lynne said. Distraught and barely sustained by the support of a neighbor, Lynne got herself to a funeral home to prepare for Kathy's burial. But Lynne’s relationship with Kathy had no legal recognition, and the funeral director told her that as long as Kathy had living relatives, Lynne would not be able to sign the papers to release the body. Lynne had to wait until Kathy’s parents arrived to handle the arrangements.
Lynne was also passed by when it came to Kathy’s retirement benefits and life insurance. As Kathy's closest legally recognized relatives, her parents were designated the beneficiaries of her retirement benefits and life insurance. Although they had been slow to come to terms with their daughter’s relationship, they had in more recent years been supportive of the couple. So, they passed the benefits on to Lynne, keeping her out of poverty. Lynne said, "It wasn't the government that authorized me or gave me the rights; it was the relationship with my employers and Kathy’s parents and good fortune that provided for me what should have been guaranteed to me. It's not something that's right."
Currently, Lynne is taking care of another widowed lesbian at her home, Pam, whose life partner passed within days of Kathy in the same hospital room. Pam had shared a house with her partner for 17 years. When her partner passed away, her share of the house came to Pam as an inheritance from a business partner because they were not recognized as legal spouses. Pam was taxed heavily for the equity and with no means to pay, may lose her home. (Lynne avoided this same fate only because she had no equity on the newly purchased house she shared with Kathy that could be taxed, due to the poor housing market and falling home values.) In addition, her employer was not as flexible as Lynne’s, and due to the time off she needed to take to care for her partner, grieve and deal with the financial complications of the estate, Pam lost her job. Lynne offered to house Pam for free, knowing that she was fortunate to have access to Kathy's life benefits.
Lynne admitted, “Even if marriage was offered to us, I’m not sure if we would have gotten married because we wouldn’t have understood the need and importance back then.” Like many others, Lynne and Kathy went through their lives saying that they did not need a piece of paper to legitimize their love. Now, however, Lynne understands that there are benefits to obtaining a marriage certificate; she stated, "It's a piece of paper that would’ve protected me and all that Kathy and I had together."