A Social Security office south of Oak Cliff refused to process a name change for a same-sex couple but a persistent effort forced them to relent
Soon after marriage equality became law, partners Martin Guerra and Bill West decided to get married. They were, after all, constitutionally entitled to the same state and federal benefits afforded heterosexual couples. Guerra went to his human resources department to add West to his insurance. He also wanted to obtain a name change.
The H.R. department said a name change had to be filed with the Social Security Administration; then they’d consider that official. After all, that’s what opposite-sex couples do.
Guerra teaches at a Dallas County Community College; the college district hadn’t offered insurance to same-sex partners before. Now, he and West — who have been together for 20 years — could be on the same policy for the first time.
Only things did not proceed smoothly.
On July 24, Guerra drove to the Social Security office in southern Oak Cliff, at the intersection of Hampton Road and I-20. All that the SSA requires to affect a name change on account of marriage is positive identification, a Social Security number, the marriage license and a filled-out SS-5 form, all of which Guerra had. But the clerk told him she didn’t know how to process it.
“Why don’t you process it the same way you process anyone who comes in with a marriage license?” he said he told her. She refused, so he asked to speak to a supervisor; that person also refused. She kept the application for name change and told him to leave.
Guerra said he didn’t know if it was incompetence, ignorance or bigotry that was standing in the way of him obtaining his lawful rights. However, he claims Social Security has been doing name changes for same-sex couples since the 2013 Windsor decision that struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act. After that decision, the federal government treated same-sex couples who were married in marriage-equality states as married for purposes of income tax and some other benefits.
Social Security, however, is paid based on state-of-residence, not state-of-marriage, so benefits were not offered. But the Social Security Administration, even in Texas, has been handling name changes for two years.
Rather than let the matter go, Guerra contacted Sarah Schultz-Lackey, Dallas regional communications director for SSA. In an email he wrote, “I think I just encountered my first dose of discrimination as a man newly married to another man.”
Schultz-Lackey responded on July 27 with an apology, but repeated that the Social Security office is working with the Department of Justice to apply changes to the law. She claimed those changes apply to benefits as well as name changes.
In the mean time, West called Lambda Legal’s helpline. He doesn’t know whether they contacted the Social Security office directly, but later that afternoon, Schultz-Lackey called to say the name change was being processed and the new Social Security card with the name Martin Antonio Guerra-West would be issued within two weeks.
Guerra was upset with what happened. The clerk, he said, didn’t say she didn’t know how to process the form but would submit it to someone who would know. She called a supervisor who told him to leave the office.
West was angry. He saw it as discrimination by particular employees who thought the Supreme Court decision didn’t apply to them so he called Dallas Voice to relate the story and ask for any suggestions.
Ken Upton, a senior staff attorney with Lambda Legal, said earlier this month that he expected some glitches as the legal decision was implemented. County clerks deciding not to issue licenses was the obvious first reflex. Guerra was probably the first from a same-sex couple that applied at this particular office.
As newlywed couples begin to apply for other benefits that marriage offers, some clerks may not understand that those requests need to be processed and same-sex couples now get all the same benefits as opposite-sex couples.
West recommends couples facing similar hurdles remain be persistent. He’ll have insurance for the first time in 12 years as a result of the ruling and for the first time in 20 years, the couple will share a name.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 31, 2015.