"Marriage" Actually Means "Marriage"
Neff, 365Gay.com from the Web, July 30, 2007
I live in an older Florida community,
the kind of place where you can expect to encounter a number of heterosexual
people divorced from a first spouse and settling in with a new partner. I
say “settling in” because, for financial reasons, they’ve chosen to enter cohab
before entering marriage.
You see, it’s common knowledge in the straight community that if you remarry,
you lose your benefits — AKA alimony — from the first marriage. Leaving a
marriage can be like losing a job. For good reason, a legal network exists
to assist an ex-spouse until a new marriage.
“Marriage” is the key. The law doesn’t account for a date, an affair, a
steady or even a live-in until “live-in” comes to mean common law marriage and
common law husband and wife.
And that’s why California Judge Michael Naughton’s ruling requiring Ron Garber
to continue paying alimony to ex-wife Melinda Kirkwood makes sense. Garber
and Kirkwood amicably divorced after an 18-year marriage, with Garber agreeing
to pay alimony for five years. Kirkwood is in a registered domestic
partnership with Kristin Kirkwood and Garber is remarried and seeking to stop
making alimony payments. But California’s marriage laws state that alimony
ends when a new marriage begins for an ex on the receiving end of the check.
If straight society seeks to bar gays and lesbians from “marriage,” then
straight society is going to pay the price — about $1,250 a month in this case.
Financially, the law works against gays and lesbians in so many ways — from
insurance coverage to inheritance rights to Social Security benefits. But
in Garber vs. Kirkwood, the anti-gay system works against the straight
party too. Without a marriage license for Kirkwood and her partner, Garber
I like the ruling in Garber vs. Kirkwood not because it’s such an obvious
“gotcha” on the straight system, but because it highlights the irrationality of
creating a separate system for legally recognizing gay relationships.
Alimony within the state of California is the issue in the Garber case, but
conflict also arises when dealing with property taxes, inheritance, retirement
benefits, health coverage and child custody — a critically important issue for
California domestic partners who move out of the state.
I know folks will argue that the Kirkwood relationship features all the elements
of a true marriage. There are many of us in committed domestic
partnerships — registered and not — who feel like we’re married and who want our
families and friends to treat us like we’re married because we want them to
honor or partners and respect our love.
But only a fraction are married in the eyes of the law, and it does our legal
arguments no good when we delude ourselves into pretending we are married.
Unless a gay couple has a license from Massachusetts, Canada, or a country
across the pond, there is no marriage.
The California Attorney General’s Office has taken a position that gay marriage
is not needed because gays can register partnerships. But partnership laws
and benefits packages should be seen not as final resolutions to the situation,
but as stopgap protections until same-sex marriage is legalized.
The city of San Francisco, which is seeking to overturn California’s same-sex
marriage ban in the state supreme court, has maintained that denying gays is
discriminatory and “discrimination is not merely detrimental to the minority it
singles out, but to the majority that would abide it.”
Clearly Garber vs. Kirkwood highlights this position. And when the
legal defenders of equality go into the California Supreme Court later this year
on the gay marriage ban, they must be able to point to Garber vs. Kirkwood
and argue that the state’s laws create a separate class of people, the
registered cohabitators whose relationships are denied the respect and reverence
that comes with marriage.
Lisa Neff is a reporter with The Islander, a weekly newspaper
on Anna Maria Island, Fl. She has worked for more than 20 years in
journalism. She is the former managing editor of the Chicago Free Press, a
GLBT newsweekly she helped found in 1999, and has also worked for the Lesbian
and Gay News-Telegraph in St. Louis, as well as for The Advocate. Email
her at email@example.com.