The Future of Gay Marriage

Jaye and Ginny replay their wedding video, adding commentary like two excited announcers. "I had no idea I was making those faces," says Ginny observing herself taking the vows. "I thought they were gonna have to call the fire department," laughs Jaye about lighting their unity candle. Finishing each other's sentences and correcting each other's stories, Jaye and Ginny act like any other just-married couple sharing their new life together. But because they are both women, they face challenges most newlyweds do not. "I see the two of us as a regular married couple, it's just everybody else that doesn't," says Ginny who has been married once before for seven years, but to a man. "I just got to the point where I realized that being with him wasn't what I was supposed to be doing." Yet while more than sixty of their close friends and family members were present to witness Jaye and Ginny's public commitment, the government was not. Same sex marriages are not legally recognized in any of the fifty states, leaving thousands of gay and lesbian couples without the automatic benefits a heterosexual couple receives.THE LAWSUIT While Denmark is currently the only place in the world where same-sex marriage is legal, Hawaii is on the verge of becoming a close second through an historic lawsuit challenging that state's constitution. In 1991, three couples (two lesbian, one gay) filed a lawsuit against the state of Hawaii for denying them marriage licenses. In May 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that this denial seemed to violate its constitutional equality clause and promote sex discrimination. The Court sent the case back to trial court with a new hearing set for Summer 1996. If the state can not show a "compelling" reason for the discrimination, Hawaii will be required to permit same-sex couples to marry, setting a precedent in the United States legal system. But in a June 1994 backlash, the state legislature passed a law to reassert its position. The new law specifically stated marriage as only legal for a man and women, using procreation as its only "compelling" defense for such discrimination. The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a non-profit, tax-exempt organization founded in 1973 to defend and extend the rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV, is representing the couples in this landmark lawsuit. Lambda is preparing for what they expect to be hundreds of state-by-state battles after a predicted victory for their clients. Lambda attorney Amelia Craig is "expecting to win" the case and is confident that this will become a national breakthrough for gay and lesbian rights. "It's our opinion that every other state in the union will have to recognize same-gender marriage," Craig said in the May 15 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. John Barbone has been a pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in Kansas City for thirteen years and has performed over two hundred holy unions for gay couples. Barbone strongly believes that being "pro-creative" is not a reason for the existence of marriage as the state of Hawaii is suggesting. "Heterosexuals have equated being co-creative with God only as the production of children," Barbone says. "My favorite line to (heterosexual) people is: If the only way the two of you are co-creative with God is in the production of children, your relationship is in trouble." But Barbone has a different view of the government's role in regards to marriage altogether Ñ- it shouldn't be involved at all. "I don't know that the government has any right issuing marriage licenses to begin with to anyone, gay or heterosexual couples," he says. "That is a unique relationship between two people, who, if they choose, wish to have that relationship blessed by God. So the state in terms of issuing licenses,...I think is an intrusion." Through acknowledging gay relationships inside of his church, Barbone is upholding his belief that "any two people have a right to publicly proclaim their love for one another."THE COMPLICATIONS Most gay couples would like to have their relationship recognized Ñ- taken for granted by heterosexual couples Ñ- if only to simplify the paperwork they are forced to undertake. Tom Flint and Greg Tinder married this past December after knowing each other for six years and went to the trouble of making sure their names were legally put on everything. "It's a longer ordeal for us because we have to go through the process of seeing lawyers and writing things out which most people can do by simply standing up in front of a preacher and signing one simple piece of paper and that's it," says Tom on what they did to ensure joint ownership of their assets. "For all practical purposes we have a traditional marriage through sharing a home and finances, it's just that a lot more money has to be spent and a lot more time and you have to research everything," he adds. Unless both families of the couple are comfortable and supportive of the relationship, complications can arise if a death or illness occurs. Since the partners are not recognized as either spouse or family, they can easily be excluded by anti-gay parents from hospital visits, important health care decisions and property rights if the relationship isn't recognized in wills or by domestic partnership laws. Daisy Vance and Terre Winstead have been married for ten years as a lesbian couple and are very much in favor of making same-sex marriages legal. Daisy works as a staff assistant at MCC and although her marriage to Terre is unknown to the government, she takes her vows seriously. "It's frustrating and it makes me angry sometimes because of things that come naturally to married couples," she says. While the Hawaii state decision may not be final until mid-1996 or early 1997, Kansas City has at least one large corporation quietly making strides for gay couples. On Jan. 1, 1995, The Kansas City Star implemented into its benefits policy medical, dental and vision coverage for same-sex couples which previously was available only to straight, legally married couples. Peggy Ginther Rush is the benefits manager at the newspaper. She explains the change in policy as one where "our commitment to fair employment practices is further served by expanding eligibility to include same-sex domestic partners." It was a corporate-wide decision that went into effect for all companies under parent corporation Capital Cities/ABC inc., and Rush says that right now it is a fairly small number that are eligible for the benefits because several criteria have to be met and certified before approval. Rush believes the Star is the first and only company to have such a policy available in Kansas City, yet the paper won't recognize same-gender marriages in its wedding section. Four other major employers were contacted in the Kansas City area regarding their benefits policies, none responded to the inquiries.TYING THE KNOT The American Heritage Dictionary defines marriage as "the legal union of a man and a woman as husband and wife," but that seems an inaccurate assumption to thousands of gay couples. The result is some alternative labels for less traditional ceremonies. Holy Union, Rite of Blessing, Covenant of Love and Lifetime Commitment Ceremony are a few of the more accurate terms that have invited a chosen few as public witnesses to churches, living rooms, and parks across America. Several major churches across the country perform these ceremonies on a regular basis. One Unity Church does about fifty a year according to senior minister Duke Tufty. "When I am awakened to love in its purest sense, regardless of who it's between, it's impossible for me not to recognize that love and honor and support it by providing an environment where it can be celebrated through a mutual commitment," he says. But not every Unity Church may recognize such ceremonies since each Unity is independent of the others. "We're like a separate corporation and totally autonomous, so that was a decision from this particular church," Tufty says of their open-door policy. While Tufty admits that his church has received a small amount of negative feedback from the community, he defends their rationale unapologetically, "My position is that I am not one to stand in judgment of whether this love should be recognized or honored," Tufty says. "It's love and that can't be denied." Traditional marriage complications seem trivial when compared to the decisions same-sex couples face. Tufty performs weddings for both gay and non-gay couples and in comparing the two has noticed some major differences. "There is a greater sense of commitment between the gay and lesbian couples," he says. "They're not coming together just to pledge their love, but they're also coming together in the face of a tremendous amount of resistance and opposition and negativity. In many cases, the people that choose to go through with holy unions are coming out to their parents for the first time that they are gay." Ginny (who is not yet "out" at work) is one such example. "I said a week before the wedding, 'Dad, uh, I'm gay and getting married. You wanna walk me down the aisle?'" Not present at Ginny's first wedding, her father obliged by "making sure he did it this time." But not all parents are so supportive. Pastor John Barbone sees the skepticism some heterosexuals hold toward gay marriages, including his own parents towards his spouse. "There seems to be a tremendous fear on the part of heterosexuals when we talk about holy unions. They in some way feel threatened," Barbone says. He thinks that threat may be felt because some people in opposite sex relationships somehow think a same-sex marriage cheapens the validity of their own commitment. "I donÕt see how that could be," Barbone adds, whose own parents feel uncomfortable referring to his partner of five years as a "spouse." Perhaps the extra sentimentality that comes with gay weddings is the realization that there is no purer example of a ceremony done solely out of love. Barbone agrees that while the ceremonies themselves are at least similar in structure, the same-sex marriages seem to be more emotional. "This is going to sound extremely prideful, but the most frequent comment I get from heterosexuals who are witnessing a holy union is, 'It was absolutely the most beautiful and sincere ceremony I have ever seen in my life.'"IF IT'S NOT LEGAL, WHY BOTHER? The Essential Guide to Lesbian and Gay Weddings book appropriately asks in one of its chapters, "If the club won't have us as members why would we want to join?" The answer can be quickly found in talking to any gay couple seriously committed to their relationship. "Because we love each other and it's a celebration proclaiming our love in front of our friends and family," says Hector Alvarado who is planning to be wed to his partner in March 1996. "Just because my fiance is a man, it doesn't change the fact that we still have the traditional marital dreams of children, a house and the white picket fence." Greg thinks his marriage to Tom showed a greater sense of commitment than traditional marriages because of all the extra hardships. "The fact that we were willing to through all the difficulty reinforces our level of commitment because it would have been a lot easier to just go on the way we were, but after five years it was like, 'Well, it's the natural thing to do,'" Greg says. Tom didn't care that neither the city, state nor country would recognize their relationship because "it was important that we formalize our commitment in front of our peers more than anything." Being a lesbian didn't change Daisy's little girl dream of having a big wedding someday, even if it meant being with a woman. "If you're a woman you think about that day and think, 'I want to wear the dress, have a special day, I want all of that,'" says Daisy. And she did as soon as she found out that her church would acknowledge her relationship with Terre. Bonnie Larson is a church secretary in Pennsylvania and mother of three children. One son, Michael, happens to be gay and is getting married soon. Upon learning that Michael was gay, Bonnie admits to feeling "devastated" but has since become somewhat of a gay rights activist. "We love him very much and we know it wasn't a choice. We just had to educate ourselves a little bit," she says of her change of feelings. When Bonnie learned that her son was gay she turned to a politically active support group called P-FLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) that meets once a month in sharing sessions. The group also has a political agenda. As a member of P-FLAG Bonnie helps write letters and educate Congress against bills that could harm her gay son. MichaelÕs wedding will involve the entire family but "the sad part is our future son-in-law's parents aren't comfortable and at this part are not a part of the wedding," Bonnie says. She sums up her often-asked answer as to why her son is going through the expense of a non-legal ceremony by saying, "They want their relationship to be recognized like our other children's would be." Friend and family support is an important part of holy unions since the couple will not be recognized by anyone else as a "couple." Pastor Barbone has the guests at gay weddings stand up and promise to uphold and support the relationship. "When you stand before God and stand before your witnesses, what you're doing is asking their support to help you fulfill that vow, and that's extremely important," he says. Jerry Browning is completely open with his sexual orientation as a college drama teacher and will soon be getting married to his partner of three years, Gene Carpenter. While looking forward to what will be a lavish outdoor ceremony to take place on Aug. 13, both are growing tired of explaining their situation to those who can't quite grasp it. "It feels like I'm coming out every day," says Jerry. "I would like to be able to just yell at the top of my lungs, 'OK I'm gay, now everybody deal with it.'" The two have insisted on as traditional a ceremony as possible, from being registered at Dillard's to requesting that the local paper print their wedding photo alongside other couples. And while Gene and Jerry insist that a white dress is all that will be missing from their big event, they know that this is the beginning of a difficult new life together as they present themselves to the world as a "married" couple. "It's going to be a lot harder for us because there is no societal support out there for gay married couples," says Jerry. But they have managed to keep a sense of humor throughout the ordeal with RSVP cards that lighten up any awkwardness. Their guests simply check one of their choices: "Why yes! I'd love to see two men get married!" or "No...I'm liberal, but not that liberal."WE'RE JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE The gay community is stereotypically not known for having a reputation for long term commitments. Many heterosexuals imagining most gays going through in a string of one night stands. "People think that if you're gay that automatically you're gonna go after everybody in sight," says happily married Ginny, "and that's not the way it is. We're just like everyone else." Barbone agrees. "For a long time one of the stereotypes of our community was that our relationships don't last," he says. But Barbone claims that of the people he has married, "85 percent are still together." Estimates show that the number of same-sex domestic couples in the United States dramatically range from 1.6 million to 6 million. And, recent surveys of lesbians and gays show that over half of all lesbians and almost 40 percent of gay men share a household with a partner. Whether one is considering marrying a Don or a Donna, Barbone asks one basic question of all couples debating the marriage question: "Is the world going to be a better place because we're together than it would be if we were apart?" Tom and Greg have found the answer to be a resounding yes. Says Tom, "It gives us a little bit extra motivation to work out problems because we have gone before all of these people. It has made a difference." "This feels more right," says Ginny referring to her marriage with Jaye. "In here," she points to herself, "I know that we are a couple, you know, its no different than a man and a woman" And she should know, having been married to a man previously. "Actually this has made me and my family closer," says Jaye about her new married status. Minister Tufty sees the joining of two people, whatever their sex, as spiritual. "There's something very sacred about a life-long commitment. It goes to a deeper place of intimacy that can only be shared by the two," Tufty says. As gay and lesbian couples today fight for the right just to choose whether they want to marry or not, it is strikingly similar to a struggle made by black and white Americans just 27 years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a law prohibiting interracial marriages. Supportive mom Bonnie Larson will continue to fight for her gay son even after his wedding. "The thing I work so hard with P-FLAG for, is so that my son and all other gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered persons will be judged by their merits, not by their sexual orientation, because my other two children aren't judged that way," she says. In a political climate flooded with preachy family values speeches, what could be more appropriate than allowing for the formation of more families by encouraging gay couples to settle down? Social stability creates useful citizens and marriage is a basic human right that should belong to each man or woman and not to the state. Or, as newlywed Greg Tinder so swiftly puts it, "If you're the kind of man who is against men being married, then don't marry one."[SIDEBAR]: NOT THE SAME FOR SAME-SEX COUPLES Here are some benefits denied to couples unless they are heterosexual and legally married: *file joint tax returns *obtain joint insurance policies for home, auto and health *inherit automatically in the absence of a will, including jointly-owned real estate and personal property through the right of survivorship *obtain such benefits as annuities, pension plans, Social Security and Medicare *obtain veterans' discounts on medical care, education and home loans *enter jointly into leases and maintain renewal rights *joint child-rearing, joint adoption, joint foster care, custody, and visitation, including non-biological parents *obtain wrongful death benefits for a surviving partner and children *take bereavement leave when a partner or child dies *determine whether a deceased partner will be cremated or not and where to bury her or him *obtain crime victims' recovery benefits *obtain domestic violence protection orders *obtain divorce protections such as community property and child support *obtain status as next-of-kin for hospital visits and medical decisions where one partner is too ill to be competent. (Source: Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund)

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