Monica Yant Kinney: Same-sex gains too late for some

Marilyn Maneely (left) and Diane Marini at a 2003 rally at the First Presbyterian Churchin Haddonfield in support of gay marriage. They were among the first to file suit seeking it.
Marilyn Maneely (left) and Diane Marini at a 2003 rally at the First Presbyterian Churchin Haddonfield in support of gay marriage. They were among the first to file suit seeking it. (SARAH J. GLOVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 26, 2012

A few weeks ago, on the eve of the New Jersey Legislature's commendable leap out of the dark ages, a pollster rang up Diane Marini at her rented house in Collingswood.

"I'm calling from Garden State Equality," the man said excitedly before popping the question. "Are you in favor of gay marriage?"

Diane, 59, didn't know whether to laugh, sob, or slam down the phone in disgust. So she did all three at once, confusing chihuahuas Norton and Winkie, four-legged stand-ins for the lost love of her life.

Diane and her domestic partner, Marilyn Maneely, made history of their own a decade ago as one of seven same-sex couples to sue the state seeking marriage equality.

The first-of-its-kind case brought the Haddonfield couple notoriety - surely the pollster knew whom he was calling; she'd starred in a documentary, after all. Yet when Marilyn succumbed to ALS in 2005, Diane couldn't sign the death certificate, donate the body to medical research, or collect Social Security.

Six years later - after civil unions became law and the Legislature passed a marriage-equality bill that Gov. Christie promptly vetoed - Diane still can't legally call herself a widow. A Superior Court judge's ruling last week gave gay couples renewed hope, but Diane remains stuck in the financial quicksand that traps the surviving spouse of same-sex unions.

"That's why I don't go to support groups," Diane tells me as we catch up over breakfast at the Westmont Diner. Everyone's sad, but "the straight widows are living far more comfortable lives."

Death and taxes

Marriage-equality proponents love to fantasize aloud about weddings and gala celebrations. Diane is a sunny sort who drives a mustard-yellow Mini Cooper, but she wishes gay activists would focus on the serious and somber, too.

Death and taxes are great equalizers. Marriage-equality foes such as Christie may see the issue more clearly if they knew gay friends and family suffer economic discrimination that the government causes.

"At 24, I had a great job and two mortgages. At 59, I only have $1,000 left in my retirement fund and I can't get a mortgage," Diane explains. "You incur debt as a couple, but you're paying it off as one."

Diane owns a design and construction firm specializing in kitchens and bathrooms, but she put work on hold for two years to care for Marilyn. A month after Marilyn's passing, Diane endured the first of many financial slights for honoring the "in sickness and health" vow above all else.

"Our joint bank account was frozen by the federal government," she tells me, the result of a Social Security overpayment. Then bureaucrats withdrew too much and sought to return $400.

"They wouldn't put her money back in our account because I wasn't next of kin," Diane fumes. "That's what infuriates me. That's the stuff people don't understand."

Timing is everything

Diane and Marilyn, a nurse, were stymied by timing.

They wanted to wed but had to settle for becoming domestic partners after Marilyn's diagnosis, since third-class rights were better than none at all. Marilyn died a year before the Legislature passed the civil-union law that might have spared Diane her headaches on top of heartbreak.

But civil unions don't erase all indignities. If a fiscal conservative such as Christie thinks otherwise, Diane suggests he watch Suze Orman's recent appearance on The Rosie O'Donnell Show. On the episode, the two wealthy and successful lesbians lament their loved ones' financial fate, since same-sex survivors are subject to punishing federal estate taxes heterosexual couples don't face.

State-by-state marriage-equality laws are a positive step, but what gay couples deserve is federal recognition. Then and only then, Orman said, O'Donnell could leave her wife "$100 billion and she wouldn't have to pay one penny."

Monica Yant Kinney:

An online video featuring Diane Marini can be found at

Contact columnist Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670,, or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at

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