Thursday, October 06, 2005

Connecticut Couples Lining Up For Civil Unions

(Link) Of course, they can't refer to themselves as "married". So are they civilly unionized, civilized or just happily CU'd? And they're not spouses. They're "Party 1 and Party 2". It's all so... romantic!

1 comment:

LNewsEditor said...

JIC Post:
By LuAnne Roy
Fairfield Weekly
By 9 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 1, a line had already formed at the town clerk's desk in Norwalk. Tony Rossi and his partner of 20 years, Peter Hughes, were the first ones in the door at 8 a.m., and the first couple to officially apply for a civil union license in Norwalk, on the historic day that Connecticut's newest law, An Act for Civil Unions, went into effect.

After a week of rumors that town halls across the state would be ill-prepared for Saturday's landmark event, and that town clerks would be unsympathetic and possibly hostile to gay and lesbian couples seeking civil unions, the Town Clerk's office in Norwalk proved to be just the opposite. Rainbow colored "Civil Union" signs directed people from the entrance of City Hall to the clerk's office, where the door was open and a silver heart-shaped balloon beckoned the way in. The counter was decorated with gold, white and silver helium balloons and a vase was brimming with white roses and lilies, baby's breath and greens. A multi-colored banner spelling out "Congratulations" was strung across the ceiling, underneath which hung a rainbow-hued helium balloon.

"They got fresh flowers," beamed Kix Ryen of Stamford, who stood teary-eyed next to her wife-to-be, Cathy. "They even got cookies!"

"I feel supported for the first time in my life," chimed in Cathy as she gazed lovingly at her partner.

Town Clerk Andy Garfunkel admitted that the decorations were his doing. "As soon as I learned that Oct. 1 fell on a Saturday, I announced to my staff that we were open. We didn't wait for anyone to give us permission." He greeted couples as they entered the clerk's office as if he were welcoming them into his own home.

Outside in the parking lot, Justice of the Peace Helen Baum was also prepared. Her car was filled with bouquets of flowers, bottles of champagne wrapped in white tissue and boutonnieres for the couples. She was also offering to complete the paper work and pay the initial application fee of any couple she joined in civil union.

By the time the clerk's office closed its doors for the day, 17 couples had obtained licenses. And some of them opted to have their ceremonies immediately--right there in front of Norwalk City Hall under a tree. Gary Yovan and Stephen Szilagyi, a Norwalk couple who said they've been together for 17 years, were the first ones to the "altar" with Justice of the Peace Daniel Brookshire officiating.

If you're thinking that all this sounds too good to be true, you're right. For all the gay and lesbian couples who've embraced the idea of civil union, almost as many have voiced their opposition to them. Their reasons for not opting for civil unions were outlined in "Civil Union 101," seminars sponsored by Love Makes a Family--an organization that advocates equality in marriage rights. Facilitated by attorneys, these seminars were held throughout the state in the months approaching the Oct. 1 enactment of the law, for the express purpose of presenting the facts about the rights same-sex couples are afforded under civil unions. Namely, eligibility for shared health benefits, property inheritance, child custody, hospital visitation and medical decisions, and legal validation of their relationship.

But the seminars also relayed the bad news about all the rights they'd be denied. They pointed out that while there are 588 new rights conferred by the state of Connecticut to same-sex couples (all the same rights conferred on married couples), there are 1,138 federal rights that they aren't entitled to--thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) implemented under Bill Clinton in 1996. DOMA prevents same-sex couples from inheriting Social Security benefits, filing joint tax returns, and means the acceptance of their legal union in their home state isn't ensured when they cross state lines.

On Sept. 19, some 38 hopeful couples attended one of these civil union seminars in Mansfield. They greeted each other with hugs, obviously happy to be sharing such a momentous time. Many were already acquainted. Others made fast friends. There was no coffee or tea, no cookies and baked goods to break the ice--just a common bond and shared commitment to equal rights. In less than two weeks from this night, they'd be able to make their unions legal. However, by the end of the two-hour session, where attorney Ron Piombino laid out the straight facts, the smiles turned to grimaces. The room was abuzz with mutterings. Some couples walked out before the question-and-answer period concluded.

Piombino, who champions the cause for same-sex unions, looked apologetic as he informed his eager audience that civil unions are not recognized by federal law and are not condoned in the majority of the 50 states, which presents a major problem to couples who opt to obtain them. Piombino strongly urged those who were planning to obtain civil unions to have additional legal documents drawn up by their attorneys to ensure their rights--especially if they plan to travel out of the state.

Piombino also informed the couples that, although the civil union law entitles them to the equal privileges of marriage within Connecticut, it does not allow them to use the same terminology (at least not officially). They can't refer to their union as a "marriage" and they can't refer to their partner as their "spouse." The application for civil union has replaced the words "husband" and "wife" with "party 1" and "party 2." The main reason for this is that when Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed the bill last spring, she did it under the condition that the state add an amendment stipulating that the term "marriage" strictly refers to a relationship between a man and a woman. It's what they call a state Defense of Marriage Amendment, modeled after the federal DOMA. In fact, moreso than the issue of shared benefits, this problem of language seems to be the most upsetting aspect of the civil union law.

Carol Buckheit, special projects manager for Love Makes a Family who moderated the seminar, calls it "blatant discrimination."

"How we do refer to ourselves?" many of the couples asked Piombino. Some tripped over the terms. "When we become civilly unionized" someone would preface a question, or "When we get civilized'" one woman remarked sarcastically, eliciting a roar from the crowd. Many just shook their heads in discouragement.

Gay couples have already been relegated to an inferior status, for years having to refer to their mates as "domestic partners" or "life partners." As Stamford resident Chris Spiegelman, aptly puts it, "It's not a business partner," referring to his seven-year relationship with his soon-to-be "spouse" Michael.

"He will be my spouse' on Saturday," he emphatically adds. Spiegelman says that he and Michael, who planned to obtain a civil union on Oct. 1, are choosing to use the word "spouse," regardless of what the law states.

When asked how he feels about the limitation of rights, Spiegelman says that he is not discouraged. Choosing to look at the positive side, he opines that "civil union is a stepping stone toward marriage equality," and adds that he's looking forward to "finally having some legal rights," and also putting an end to embarrassing situations involving proof of their relationship in pharmacies and medical-care facilities.

The one item that did pose an obstacle was the issue of foreign adoption. Piombino's lecture imparted the disheartening news that most countries refuse to grant adoption to same-sex couples who enter into civil unions. Single gays and lesbians can adopt foreign children (that is, as long as they stick to the "Don't ask, don't tell" strategy that gays in the military are forced to use), but once they obtain the license uniting them legally, they lose that privilege. Spiegelman maintains that he and Michael have discussed the matter and both agree it is a chance they are willing to take. They do plan on having a family, but will have to limit their scope to adoption within the United States.

Spiegelman and his spouse-to-be are one of many area couples who are taking immediate advantage of the civil union law, despite its downsides. Chris and Scott Emmerson-Pace are planning to travel to Kent to obtain their civil union in a private ceremony with immediate family and a few friends. Chris says that after spending 14 years together, they've waited long enough. Kix and Cathy Ryen were heading to Norwalk City Hall precisely at 9 a.m. on Oct. 1 to obtain their civil union license, but will wait to have their celebration until Oct. 4, the day Kix says she and Cathy met three years ago. Kix and Cathy had a traditional wedding ceremony when they first made their relationship official, and now they're willing to have a civil union.

"It's just a formality," Kix says. And, when marriage becomes available to same-sex couples, they'll opt for that, too. "I think 100 percent that the marriage part is inevitable," she adds, acknowledging that she's glad to live in a state that's at the forefront of gay rights.

Enthusiasm aside, however, Kix admits that the civil union law is not all that it's cracked up to be. "It does make us second-class citizens [by] putting us in another category."

She relates an amusing story about a heterosexual couple she's acquainted with who expressed their desire to get a civil union but were told that they're not entitled to one. In other words, Kix points out, they were looking for a commitment that was something less than marriage. She laughs, "They're calling it [civil union] marriage light.'" Which is exactly what gay and lesbian couples don't want. They want their relationships to be recognized as a total commitment; they want their love validated by having equal status with straight couples.

"It's an ongoing battle" Kix adds. "We're just now getting some basic rights at some point in the future, people will look back and realize they were involved in a great injustice."

As Carol Buckheit points out, "There's many gays and lesbians who aren't jumping for joy" over the passing of the civil union law. In fact, several organizations, including Love Makes a Family, have voiced their disapproval of the limited law. LMF did not endorse the bill until the final hour, when it realized that the legislature was not ready to support a gay marriage bill. When the legislature stripped the marriage language out of the bill, LMF President Ann Stanback says, "We had to draw a line in the sand we had to be clear what our goal is civil union and marriage are not the same thing."

Bennett Klein, an attorney with the Boston-based group Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), which won the landmark case in Massachusetts that led to that state's adoption of gay marriage, notes, "The civil union law is a political compromise," adding that, "the law creates a separate category for same-sex couples," which GLAD claims is unconstitutional. Janet Peck of Colchester, one of the plaintiffs in GLAD's case suing for gay marriage rights, echoes this sentiment. "Civil union says, after all these years, we are not worthy of marriage. The reality is civil unions are not equal." Peck and her partner of nearly 30 years, Carol Conklin, do not consider civil union an option.

Members of the clergy are also voicing their disappointment with the limitations of the civil union law. A new organization called the Connecticut Clergy for Marriage Equality recently released its Declaration on Marriage Equality that states the members' "unwavering support of marriage for same-gender couples." In a press conference held on Sept. 24 on the steps of Hartford's historic Center Church, Rev. Josh Pawelek, the group's chairman, addressed the crowd, stating "CCME has come into existence to express a clear, decisive, prophetic, joyous and mainstream religious voice to balance the voices of those who use religion to uphold discrimination against same-gender couples." He concluded his speech remarking, "While we appreciate and value the establishment of legal civil unions in Connecticut, we do not feel it is a just solution to create state-sanctioned discrimination against same-gender couples and their families." He reiterates the GLAD attorneys' belief that the civil union law ultimately serves to impose a second-class citizenship that he claims is "unfair and unsustainable."

"Only marriage," he asserts, "can assure true justice. Civil union does not get us there."

Eileen Ego of Griswold and her partner Corrine, have opted against getting a civil union for that very reason. "We feel it's settling," Ego explains. "We're holding out for marriage." Ego reasons that civil union wouldn't gain much for the couple, because she's a state employee, so her domestic partner is already entitled to shared health benefits and pension plan. The couple also has already successfully adopted a child, and under Connecticut state law, both are considered equal parents. So, they have no need for a civil union. "The real deal is federal benefits," says Ego. And until the United States decides to recognize gay marriage at the federal level, same-sex couples will be at a disadvantage.

All of the couples interviewed for this story agreed on one thing: that in order for the people of the United States to accept gay marriage, they need to be educated. "It's always a public education thing," Chris Spiegelman says. "American people take their time but in the end they get there." He says he has the utmost faith that his country will eventually do the right thing.

As far as the state of Connecticut being prepared for Saturday's historic enactment of the civil union law, Sandra Hutton, head of the state's Town Clerks Association, proudly asserted, "The clerks in Connecticut are ready to go!" On Sept. 23, the state held a conference to explain the procedures and legalities to town clerks and people performing the ceremonies. All the necessary applications were distributed. And, according to Hutton, approximately 85 percent all the town/city clerks in the state attended (which she claims was the highest attendance of any meeting held this year).

Some towns were open on Saturday to issue licenses--Norwalk, Stamford, Hartford and Bridgeport to name just a few. Norwalk City Hall opened an hour early and declared that it would stay open past its usual noon closing time if need be, to accommodate couples. And Stamford's Mayor Dan Malloy, who is a registered Justice of the Peace, was planning to be on hand to perform ceremonies at Stamford City Hall himself.

So, what's the verdict on civil unions? Are they a good thing or a bad thing? The jury is still out. But as many couples have pointed out, it's a step in the right direction. And everyone interviewed applauded the fact that Connecticut is the first state to implement same-sex unions voluntarily and not as a result of a Supreme Court ruling (as in the case of Massachusetts). And, even though LMF is not ecstatic about the compromised civil union law, its president, Ann Stanback, feels strongly that, with the overwhelming support of several Connecticut lawmakers like state Sen. Andrew McDonald of Stamford and state Rep. Michael Lawlor of East Haven, they will eventually achieve their goal of seeing gay marriage become state law. She anticipates that 2007 will be the year for this to happen. They're waiting to give Connecticut residents time to adjust to same-sex unions, and for the election year to pass. As Kix Ryen points out, "eventually people will realize that love can't be a bad thing."