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Government Won't Pay Death Benefits to Spouse of Gay Congressman

Former Rep. Gerry Studds, the first openly gay member of Congress, was married to another man in Massachusetts at the time of his death, but the federal government will not pay death benefits to his spouse.

Studds married Dean Hara in 2004 after gay marriage was legalized in Massachusetts. But Hara will not be eligible to receive any portion of Studds' estimated $114,337 annual pension because the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act bars the federal government from recognizing Studds' marriage.

Peter Graves, a spokesman for the Office of Personnel Management, which administers the congressional pension program, said same-sex partners are not recognized as spouses for any marriage benefits. He said Studds' case was the first of its kind known to the agency.

Under federal law, pensions can be denied only to lawmakers' same-sex partners and people convicted of espionage or treason, Graves said.

Studds, 69, had his homosexuality exposed during a teenage page sex scandal in 1983. He died Saturday, several days after collapsing while walking his dog. Doctors said he had developed two blood clots.

Graves said Studds could have purchased an insurable interest annuity, similar to an insurance policy, which is allowed under both the civil service and federal employee retirement system and is not affected by the Defense of Marriage Act. Graves said he did not know if Studds used that option.

Pete Sepp, spokesman for the nonprofit watchdog group National Taxpayers Union, estimated Studds' annual pension at $114,337.

That would have made Hara eligible for a lifetime annual pension of about $62,000, which would grow with inflation, if the marriage were recognized by the federal government, Sepp said.

Hara, 48, declined to comment on the matter.

Gary Buseck, legal director for an advocacy group called Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, said Studds' case may offer "a moment of education for Congress."

"Now they have a death in the congressional family of one of their distinguished members whose spouse is being treated differently than any of their spouses," Buseck said.

In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage after gay and lesbian couples successfully sued for the right to marry.

Studds was elected to Congress in 1972. In 1983, a 27-year-old man disclosed that he and Studds had a sexual relationship a decade earlier when he was a teenage congressional page. The House censured Studds, who revealed on the House floor that he was gay.

Voters continued to re-elect him until he retired in 1997 to become a lobbyist for the fishing industry and environmental causes.