This week’s historic victory for marriage equality in Maine was bittersweet for me. I wholeheartedly support gay couples’ right to marry, but this Election Day I was reminded that the battle for full equality is still far from over. Its outcome is far from certain, and the casualties of this war continue to mount.
On Tuesday morning I learned that my friend and colleague Richard Lawlor passed away the week before, apparently of natural causes, a year or so shy of his 60th birthday. Richard was an energetic and dedicated promoter of the arts and gay culture in Maine.
In the 1990s and into last decade, he was instrumental in the production of the Maine Festival and New Year’s Portland, among many other events, including numerous fundraisers for Equality Maine. He published and edited The Companion, a publication covering news and entertainment in Portland’s gay community. He later started a website about gay nightlife and recreation for tourists and locals. His next major undertaking was an online resource for Mainers with celiac disease, which listed local sources of gluten-free food.
His partner in that endeavor, and in life, was Roy Silvernail. Richard and Roy were inseparable. They lived together in Portland’s West End and were well known and loved in the neighborhood. They had been together for almost five years, and their popular gluten-free site was in the process of expanding to encompass all of New England, when Roy was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2010. Ten wrenching weeks later, Roy was dead. He was 54 years old.
Roy’s passing devastated Richard. Richard could be cynical, but he was a fun-loving and very funny man. He was also an incorrigible gossip and gadfly — qualities that convinced me to give him a regular column on gay issues and Portland nightlife, called Citizen Dick, in my publication, The Bollard, back in 2005.
After Roy died, Richard was a shell of his former self. His partner’s passing left him heartbroken and broke. That’s what led me, in February of 2011, to write a cover story for The Bollard about Richard’s experience and the challenges millions of other gay and lesbian Americans face when their partner passes away.
We have so often heard the stories of gay people denied visitation rights and other measures of the respect they deserve when their partner is terminally ill. Thankfully, and somewhat ironically, that was not the case for Richard and Roy. The doctors, nurses and administrators at Mercy Hospital, a Catholic institution, did not allow the bigoted dogma espoused by church leaders to compromise the quality of the care and support this gay couple received.
“From a medical point of view, we were treated beautifully,” Richard told me, as quoted in the story, “Making Death Discriminate.” “There was total respect for our relationship … I would sit with him at chemo. The chemo nurse would come by and not just check with him, ‘How’re you doing, Roy?’ but ‘How’s Richard doing?’ Roy’s answer was, ‘He’s going to get a book deal out of this.’”
The state and federal bureaucracies, however, were not nearly as responsive and supportive. Roy qualified for MaineCare, but he and Richard had thousands of dollars of out-of-pocket expenses just for medications. Roy’s Social Security benefits and other assistance were repeatedly delayed due to confusion and incompetence. He was due thousands of dollars’ worth of retroactive Social Security compensation that failed to arrive before he passed, and by then it was too late.
“That money would have solved everything,” Lawlor told me. “Because Roy and I shared bank accounts, even though he died, I would have had that. But he died and it just took too long … If I were legally married, I believe I would have been eligible for those benefits.”
In fact, he was not. Gay men and women pay into the Social Security system just like most other workers, but the federal Defense of Marriage Act prevents them from receiving the survivor benefits to which straight, married couples are entitled. Maine’s marriage equality law doesn’t change that. Federal benefits paid to the widows of soldiers, police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians are also denied on the basis of sexual orientation, regardless of state laws.
It will require an act of Congress to repeal DOMA and grant gay couples the support they deserve in their darkest hours. With the House of Representatives still in the hands of Republican ideologues, that won’t happen anytime soon.
It certainly didn’t happen in time to help Richard and countless others in similar situations. Amid all the much-deserved celebration of marriage equality in Maine, it’s important to remember those who struggled for the cause but did not live to see it achieved and to acknowledge that the campaign for genuine equality has only just begun.
Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. His column appears here weekly. An informal memorial gathering for Richard Lawlor will be held at 7 p.m., on Mon., Nov. 12, at LFK, in Portland’s Longfellow Square.