On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Richard Young granted an emergency request forcing the state of Indiana to recognize the marriage of Amy Sandler and Niki Quasney, the first legal same-sex marriage permitted in the state. Sandler and Quasney, who have two children and were married in Massachusetts last year, are part of a larger lawsuit to overturn Indiana’s marriage ban. But the couple asked Young to exempt them from the ban right now for the very simple reason that Quasney is about to die.
It’s a sad fact that many of the biggest gay marriages victories have arisen out of lawsuits involving the demise, or impending demise, of one partner. Death famously sits at the root of United States v. Windsor, and Ohio’s gay marriage ban was first dented by a dying man who married his longtime partner in Maryland and sued to stay married on his Ohio death certificate. Morbid as it may seem, this is partly strategic: The fight for equal justice never seems more pressing or poignant than when it’s designed to bring rights to someone whose time left on Earth is quickly dwindling. Judges—and most Americans—have a harder time denying gay people rights when doing so deprives a mother of two from the joys of marriage in her last days of life.
But the dominance of death in gay marriage lawsuits is also rather inevitable. Gay marriage isn’t just about symbolism or abstract equality: It’s a pragmatic attempt to relieve the constant burdens gay couples experience when the state treats them like legal strangers. And as Edith Windsor can tell you, arguably the most significant of these burdens involve death. In their lawsuit, Sandler and Quasney noted that, without a judicial order, Quasney will die officially “unmarried,” and Sandler will be unable to access some of the basic benefits of surviving spouses. She may be unable to control her partner’s estate or assert custody over her own children. In short, she’d be left in a legal limbo, thoroughly disadvantaged by the law and forced—with the help of a costly attorney, no doubt—to sue for the fundamental benefits that would otherwise automatically be hers.
Spousal benefits, of course, are not all that’s at stake in the gay marriage debate. For Quasney, dying with the knowledge that Indiana recognized her marriage to the woman she loves is probably more important than every practical factor combined. That’s the true gift Judge Young has provided Sandler and Quasney: The dignity of equality, coupled with the satisfaction of overcoming injustice. It’s unfortunate that Quasney had to spend so much of her life fighting for the right to have her relationship recognized by the state. But at least in her final moments, she can look to the woman she loves and call her, with no qualifications, her wife.