By MEUSA News Manager John Mattras
When a future historian sits down to write the definitive history of the march for marriage equality in all 50 states, he or she could hope to find no greater treasure trove of material than Cathy Marino-Thomas. A marriage equality activist from before the movement’s inception and throughout, Marino-Thomas embodies both the civil rights struggle of the LGBT community and the personal struggles so many LGBT families face. A mother of an 13-year old daughter, Jackie, and legally married for nine years to her wife, Sheila, of 20 years, she understands only too well the challenges faced by LGBT families as they emerged from no legal recognition to semi-recognition to full recognition and the political battles fought along the way.
“We were relatively ‘lucky,’ says Marino-Thomas of the days before any legal recognition. “Our suffering was mostly emotional. Without legal recognition, our relationship lacked the recognition and respect that our sibling’s marriages received. Our families simply didn’t get it.” Legally, she says, “We had trouble protecting ourselves. We couldn’t claim each other as dependents, had no say with regard to medical situations and we paid way too much in taxes!”
Although the couple had been registered as domestic partners in New York since 1996, they jumped at the chance to marry in Massachusetts just three days after marriage equality took effect there. The wedding took place in Provincetown Town Hall, across the street from where they had met in 1991.
“The semi-recognition status we obtained after domestic partnership in New York was frustrating. We had legal recognition – sort of. We had to remember all the time what rights we had. It was particularly difficult when one of us had to go to the hospital. We had our daughter in 2000. Again, we were ‘lucky’. Our doctors understood our relationship and that we were going to parent together. We had healthcare proxies and all that. But, still, once the baby was born, the medical staff continually asked who Sheila was, questioning her every time she touched the baby. I had to explain who she was. It was very upsetting.”
Even after their marriage in Massachusetts, Marino-Thomas and her wife faced unequal treatment. “In 2008, I fainted in a restaurant and had to be taken to St. Vincent’s. They kept me overnight, monitoring my heart. Sheila wanted to spend the night there with me. She could not do it without being continually questioned – in St. Vincent’s! The next day, the doctor came to see me. Instead of being focused on my health, he wanted to know which of us was the husband. We were outraged.”
Marino-Thomas sites her respect and concern for her family as the motivating forces for her volunteer efforts for marriage equality. “I am extremely proud to have led the group to marriage equality in New York State. I started my job when folks didn’t even want to discuss the possibility of marriage. I led the group through two votes in New York – 2009 defeated and 2011 victorious. In both years, I was at the table with elected officials and other organizations. In 2011, I was at the meeting with Gov. Cuomo when Sen. Alessi came in and announce he would be the first Republican Senator to vote yes for marriage equality. I got to be part of the press conference that followed. It was very exciting!”
Noteworthy, too, is that Marino-Thomas was instrumental in making Marriage Equality New York the only grass-roots organization at the table when strategizing with the Governor. “That was a very big deal,” says MEUSA executive director, Brian Silva. “She got there by being a ‘pain in the ass,’ or I guess I should say, ‘persistent.’ The established gay rights organizations with professional staffs resisted a grass-roots presence, but Cathy insisted it would add a broader dimension of support — and she was right!” Since that time and Marriage Equality New York’s merger with Marriage Equality USA, the organization has been automatically included as part of the coalition advocating for marriage equality in other states.
The recent Supreme Court decisions have significantly propelled the movement forward. With the death of DOMA, thanks to U.S. v. Windsor, Marino-Thomas says her family have been positively affected in many ways. “This year, we will find out for the first time how that affects our tax reporting. We are reissuing our wills and documents to reflect full equality. We can now rely on Social Security as part of our retirement planning. Sheila and I are both in our 50s. Retirement planning is definitely on the table!”
Adds Marino-Thomas, “Emotionally, we have experienced greater outward acceptance from the general people in our lives. We, of course, have been recognized for our work, I don’t mean that. I mean that there is visibly less flinching when you say ‘my wife.’ I still feel there are many things to be careful of. For example, there are 37 states that do not recognize our marriages at a state level. We have to be cautious when traveling in those states. I also still feel strongly that all families should do second parent adoptions regardless of the status of their states. We shouldn’t mess with custody of kids. We had that done for our daughter very early in her life.”
A recipient of multiple awards during her work with Marriage Equality New York and then Marriage Equality USA, Marino-Thomas says it was an award from her church of 20 years three years ago, the Metropolitan Community Church in Manhattan, that touched her the most. “I have received quite a few during my tenure. But this one meant a lot. My family was there as we had bought a table for the occasion. Both my mother and my mother-in-law attended. My mother-in-law, who lives in Baltimore, had never experienced my public speaking. She is an amazing speaker, so, it meant a lot to have her there. My mother has always been a source of support for me and that made this event extra special. Receiving this award touched me deeply. It was priceless.”
Looking back on her tenure with Marriage Equality New York and Marriage Equality USA, Marino-Thomas, who was the President of Marriage Equality New York when the two consolidated, says, “As an organization, I was proud of our ability to consolidate MENY and MEUSA to establish a national organization. I am proud of the work that is being done and of what states are achieving due to that work. Lastly, I am thrilled, proud and excited that we have finally made “paid” organizations realize the importance of grassroots work. We are the only basically all volunteer organization to ever be invited to the strategy table.”
She also views marriage equality as a victory for society — not just the LGBT community. “Everyone benefits from marriage equality. Heterosexuals have a better understanding and respect for the right to marry, or at least I hope that they have learned how special and wonderful it is to be able to protect your family. It’s something we all need to learn to take very seriously.”