In Doak Bloss’s lifetime, the biggest advances in the civil rights of gay and lesbian people have come in reaction to adversity – the Stonewall riots in the late 60s, Anita Bryant’s anti-gay referenda in 1977, and the AIDS crisis throughout the 80s. With that in mind, he and his partner Gerardo Ascheri are proudly challenging the Public Employee Domestic Partner Benefit Restriction Act signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder on Dec 22, 2011.
Together they are one of four couples named in the federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Michigan on Jan. 5 to overturn the state law that bans many public entities from providing health care insurance to the domestic partners of their employees.
“Throughout the last decade, we’ve watched corporate interests erode the basic rights of people who are targeted for oppression – people in poverty, people of color, immigrants, the elderly,” said Bloss. “A callousness seems to have taken over our national soul. But the election of Barack Obama and the rise of the Occupy movement have given me hope. The blatant meanness of this law has energized people in my world, both gay and straight, in a very exciting way.”
Bloss and Ascheri of East Lansing have been in a committed relationship for 18 years. They met while Bloss was co-directing a production of “Godspell” at Lansing Community College in 1993. Ascheri, a classically trained pianist, was accompanying on the piano. Within a couple of weeks, Bloss said he was convinced this is the man he wanted to spend his life with.
“When my board of commissioner’s offered the domestic partner benefits in 2004, this was great for us. For the first time, I felt that I belonged,” said Bloss, the Health Equity and Social Justice Coordinator for the Ingham County Health Department since 1998. In his ironic job position, Bloss has successfully created access to healthcare for the uninsured, making people aware that forms of oppression such as racism and classism are bad for the community’s health.
While working for a forward-thinking employer, Bloss said the passing of this law is “like a punch to the gut.”
“This legislation blatantly and explicitly targets us for discrimination. It says that my employer can’t treat our family equally with other families even it wants to. It is essentially a message to all gay and lesbian people that Michigan doesn’t want us here,” said Bloss.
Ascheri is an independent piano teacher with various degrees in Piano Performance, including a Doctoral Degree from Michigan State University. He also has high blood pressure and high cholesterol. To purchase individual health insurance coverage for Ascheri, it will cost about $7,500 a year for basic medical coverage through Blue Cross Blue Shield, the only product available to them at the moment. Add dental and vision and the total will be somewhere between $8,000 and $10,000 annually to make sure they both have adequate coverage in the future.
“This has definitely tarnished the excitement and elation we have felt since I became a U.S. citizen two summers ago. It certainly undermines the ideals and principles this country has been founded on. In a way, it makes the ‘American Dream’ seem less real if not fictitious,” said Ascheri, who grew up in a small town called San Genaro, Santa Fe Province in Argentina where military regimes were in control, the media was censored and people were oppressed. “It was such a relief to leave all that behind, but the passage of this law has made us both realize that we are actually second-class citizens here.”
Although the couple has talked at times about moving to another part of the country or even to Argentina, they have deep roots in the Lansing community and do not intend to leave for many years. “But if this law is not overturned, for financial and emotional reasons we will have to leave,” said Bloss.
As this law will have devastating repercussions for hardworking LGBT families across the state, the idea of leaving Michigan is on the minds of many like Peter Ways and Joe Breakey of Ann Arbor, who are also plaintiffs involved in the lawsuit.
“We love Michigan and we have many friends and families here as well, but if the current thinking in Lansing continues, if this law is not recognized as an unfair attack on a minority group, then we will give very serious thought to taking our family to a place were we are welcome and where we enjoy the same legal protection as other families,” said Ways, a middle school teacher for Ann Arbor Public schools whose partner of more than 20 years will lose his health insurance benefits.
“We have much more pressing problems. I really don’t understand why these political leaders and others find our lives so interesting and so important. It’s really hard to be the target and we are the target, there’s no question about it,” said Ways, adding that he isn’t accustomed to this type of discrimination. “This is not somebody calling me a name on the street. This is our government saying they don’t want us to be together and they don’t want us to exist.”
Ways and Breakey had a commitment ceremony in 1998 witnessed by a large number of family and friends. In 2002, their legally adopted daughter Aliza was born made possible by an egg donor and a surrogate mother. She is the biological child of Breakey, a self-employed licensed psychotherapist.
“We brought into the world and are raising a bright and capable nine-year-old girl. It’s interesting to see this through the eyes of our daughter who has a sense of justice from early on when she had to make peace with the fact that her family is different. There are a small handful of two dads where we come from and she’s endured some minor teasing, harassment and judgment at a young age,” said Ways.
Despite the law in place, Ways and Breakey remain hopeful. “We just have to be. If we take a step back, we can argue that things have changed hugely. Our president stood before the United Nations and said that we need to respect gays and lesbians. That’s never happened before. It’s sad and it’s hard and it’s ridiculous that we live in a state that’s taken such a giant step backward, but there are two steps forward,” said Ways.
Unless a federal injunction is issued immediately, Theresa Bassett and her wife Carol Kennedy of Ann Arbor face considerable pressure on their finances, which are already strained by a mortgage and the cost of sending two of their six children to college.
Bassett has been a middle school teacher with Ann Arbor Public Schools for 28 years and her employer extends health insurance coverage to Kennedy through the school district’s “Other Qualified Adult” plan. Kennedy, who is a licensed in-home daycare provider, has a family history of breast cancer. To keep her premium down to $250 per month, Kennedy would have to accept a $2,500 deductible and pay many medical expenses out of pocket. She estimates that purchasing comprehensive coverage on her own will cost the family an additional $800 a month.
“Yes, financially it will hurt, but the message that is sent is far more damaging. This defines us as a family and says that my partner is not worthy of health insurance because our marriage is not recognized in Michigan. It doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Bassett, adding that she and Kennedy had a commitment ceremony in 1990 surrounded by family and friends then were married in San Francisco, California with their children in attendance in 2008. They are also registered as domestic partners with the City of Ann Arbor since 1993.
“A piece of me as a parent wants to show my kids that this is a human rights issue, an issue about justice. And this ties into our religion as Unitarian Universalists. We believe in justice for all and we believe that when possible and when we are safe, we should stand up for what we believe,” said Bassett.