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Lesbian Veteran Sues Over Denial of Benefits

by Michael K. Lavers
National News Editor
Wednesday Feb 1, 2012
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A disabled veteran from California announced on Wednesday that she will file a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs after her application for spousal benefits for her wife was denied.

Tracey Cooper-Harris served in the Army for 12 years until she was honorably discharged in 2003. She married Maggie Cooper-Harris in Van Nuys, Calif., in 2008.

Tracey Cooper-Harris was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010. She receives disability benefits from the VA because it determined that the disease is connected to her military service. Even though California recognizes the couple’s marriage, the VA denied Tracey Cooper-Harris’ request for spousal benefits because the Defense of Marriage Act forbids the military or any other federal government agency from recognizing same-sex couples.

"We’re only asking for the benefits as other married couples," said Tracey Cooper-Harris during a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The lawsuit will be filed in federal court in Los Angeles.

"We simply want the same piece of mind that these benefits bring to the families of other disabled veterans and that is why we filed a federal lawsuit challenging this policy," added Tracey Cooper-Harris.

Christine Sun, deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, stressed that the VA has an obligation to support veterans during their service and once they leave the military.

"Refusing to grant these benefits to Tracey and Maggie solely because of their sexual orientation is unpatriotic and un-American," she said. "Tracey shouldn’t have to endure discrimination that belittles her marriage and her service to this country, and Maggie shouldn’t have to tolerate a government that acts as if the challenges she faces as the spouse of a disabled veteran don’t exist."

The Cooper-Harrises filed their lawsuit a little more than three months after eight gay and lesbian servicemembers and veterans who were denied spousal benefits challenged the constitutionality of DOMA in federal court in Boston. Servicemembers Legal Defense Network on Monday criticized the Pentagon for its failure to address existing inequities for same-sex partners of servicemembers since the repeal of ’don’t ask, don’t tell’ became official last September.

Joseph Levin, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, represented Air Force Lt. Sharron Frontiero before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. The military denied her request for spousal benefits for her husband. The court ruled in the landmark Frontiero v. Richardson decision that the Pentagon must provide married servicewomen the same benefits as their male counterparts.

"Tracey’s lawsuit is a logical extension of the case that the Southern Poverty Law Center brought on my behalf 40 years ago," said Sharron Frontiero-Cohen at the National Press Club press conference. "Tracey is fighting the same battle I fought, which is not to have our work deemed second rate, second best. We served like everybody else."

SLDN executive director Audrey Sarvis welcomed the lawsuit.

"This filing today advances the cause of equality for gay and lesbian service members and veterans," he said in a brief statement.

The White House announced last February that it would no longer defend DOMA in federal court. President Barack Obama also briefly referenced gay servicemembers in his latest State of the Union speech last week.

"We are not the only people in this situation," Maggie Cooper-Harris told EDGE after the press conference. "There are other people who could benefit from this (lawsuit) and should not have to fight for it along the way because it should be automatically provided to them."

Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.

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