Hundreds of Northern California same-sex spouses, and elder lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans attended the nation’s first “Know Your Rights” education sessions last week.  Participants received vital information about Social Security benefits now available thanks to the Supreme Court’s June 2013 Windsor ruling in the Defense of Marriage Act.

“The highest court in the land reaffirmed the promise inscribed into its walls: ‘equal justice under law.’ Now we must keep our promise by continuing to fight – in the courts, in state legislatures, and in the Congress – to ensure every American has the freedom to marry, and all of America’s families enjoy the blessings of equal protection under the law.” …Democratic Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, (D-CA)

For the first time in its long history, the Social Security Administration is providing benefits to same sex married couples which has important financial implications for millions of LGBT Americans.  The “Know Your Rights” campaign’s goal is to ensure LGBT Americans understand their rights to benefits.

“ ‘Know Your Rights’ is the first outreach program of its kind in the nation and a model for an education campaign potentially reaching millions of LGBT Americans from coast to coast. The National Committee Foundation is proud to lead this campaign because it’s vital that we get the word out to the LGBT community so that they can begin the process of filing for benefits with the Social Security Administration.”…Carroll L. Estes, Ph.D., National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare Foundation Board Chair

“We were honored to offer a launch pad for the National Committee Foundation’s critically important efforts to help make the Supreme Court’s historic decision effective by expanding the principles of social justice and equal treatment to Social Security.  Over the coming years, millions of same-sex couples will get the federal benefits they have earned, and the human respect they deserve.”…Dr. Thomas Peters, President & CEO, Marin Community Foundation

With the support of a lead grant from the Marin Community Foundation, the Northern California sessions included panel discussions with the Social Security Administration, legal experts, and seniors’ and LGBT advocates.  The outreach sessions in Marin, San Francisco and Sonoma Counties were coordinated with local partners, Spectrum LGBT Center and Openhouse.

“With marriage for same-sex couples now recognized by one third of the states and the federal government, more and more LGBT Americans have access to benefits and responsibilities we have not had to consider before,” said Openhouse Executive Director Seth Kilbourn. “For older same-sex couples, Social Security benefits are particularly important. These kinds of town hall meetings provide critical information about what these benefits mean for LGBT families and how to access them. The “Know Your Rights” outreach effort is a great model that brings the LGBT community together with local leaders and national partners to talk about these issues and begin the dialogue.”

“The Social Security Town Halls give LGBT Americans – and LGBT older adults in particular – an opportunity to learn about federal benefits previously denied to them because of the discriminatory policy of offering only married, heterosexual couples and their families this critical financial benefit. It is through robust education and outreach that we will reach these people – so used to being excluded from the system – and encourage them to apply.” Paula Pilecki, Spectrum LGBT Center Executive Director

Before the DOMA ruling, a child whose same-sex parent died forfeited as much as $15,000 each year in survivor income, totaling $256,000 before he/she reached age 18.  There are an estimated quarter million children being raised by same-sex couples who can now qualify for Social Security survivors benefits.  When it comes to retirement, same-sex spouses lost, on average, more than $8,000 each year in earned spousal retirement benefits because their marriage was not recognized by the federal government.  The Social Security Administration has urged the LGBT community to file for benefits now, even as new regulations are being finalized.

California, with the largest LGBT population in the country and the largest number of Social Security beneficiaries, was the logical choice for the first series of educational forums and sets the stage for a nationwide outreach effort. To learn more about the “Know Your Rights” campaign watch our video.