It took more than 3 1/2 years and several appeals for the Social Security Administration to recognize the marriage of Ed Gentzler and William Parker.
The acknowledgment came only after Gentzler lost the man he had loved the most in his life.
Gentzler applied for widower’s insurance benefits after his husband, Bill, succumbed to cancer. The Social Security Administration did not accept their marriage and refused Gentzler’s request.
Parker died in 2014, nearly five years after the two married in Iowa.
“This weighed heavily on my heart for a long time, especially when the benefit denials would come on the anniversary of Bill’s death,” Gentzler said.
The weight on Gentzler’s heart is lighter now.
The Social Security Administration re-examined Gentzler’s case after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its historic decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 marriage equality case that gave same-sex couples the same legal right to marry as different-sex couples.
On Jan. 18, the Social Security Administration reversed its opinion on Gentzler’s case – and recognized their Oct. 2, 2009 marriage.
Their love story however, began thousands of miles from Missouri, decades ago.
Gentzler and Parker met in Seattle in 1987. They had mutual friends, but did not know each other at the time. When the two told those mutual friends they were both done with the dating scene, their acquaintances invited them to dinner at New Orleans Café in Pioneer Square.
As soon as they were seated with seven other couples, Gentzler and Parker looked at each other and realized they’d been set up: They were the only single people at the table.
“We both glared at each other for the first 20 minutes,” Gentzler said with a laugh. “The irony is that 20 years later, we were the only pair from that night still together.”
Gentzler was working at the Boeing Space Center in Kent, Wash., outside of Seattle. Parker taught theater and communications at Pacific Lutheran University. The two fell in love and moved in together that same year.
The true test of their early relationship was a month-long trip to Europe.
Anyone who can survive a month on the road together can survive forever,” Gentzler said.
After living and working in Washington state, the two retired to Florida.
That’s when Parker fell ill. When his cancer came back for a second time, the couple decided to relocate to St. Louis in 2008 for Parker’s medical treatment.
The couple was not completely unfamiliar to Missouri. Gentzler attended college at the University of Missouri-Rolla. Parker grew up in a small, Southern Illinois town. Before he left for Washington, he directed and performed in a number of theater productions in the St. Louis area, most notably in the starring role of the “Caine Mutiny” performed at the Old Courthouse.
When Iowa changed its marriage laws in April 2009, the couple took a bus ride with several other St. Louisans that autumn to have their devotion to each other finally recognized by a court.
They married on October 2, 2009.
After the wedding, Parker’s ongoing battle with cancer intensified. As he was going through chemotherapy, he had a violent reaction to a botched blood transfusion. He died two days later – just a day before he would have turned 79.
Gentzler filed for benefits not long after Parker died on June 20, 2014. An administrative judge denied Gentzler’s request for spousal benefits in December 2015, stating that because the state of Missouri did not recognize marriage of same-sex couples until a few months after Parker’s death, Gentzler had no claim to his husband and longtime partner’s benefits.
With the help of the ACLU, Gentzler appealed the initial decision and the ACLU counseled him until the Social Security Administration reversed its opinion on Jan. 18.
“I’m relieved that it’s over and that others won’t have to go through this as they grieve for their loved ones,” Gentzler said.
After his husband’s death, Gentzler moved to a residential retirement community, where he met several neighbors who knew his husband and shared their stories with him.
Gentzler also brought an important heirloom with him when he moved in: the piano that Parker purchased before the couple moved from Florida to Missouri.
The piano had gathered dust in Gentzler’s home for awhile, because even the quietest note played with the most gentle touch would be a reminder of a lifetime of memories with his husband.
Gentzler donated the piano to the community and music flows from it once again. It is now in the main common room, where it strikes a chord when Gentzler hears it played.