Thursday, October 22, 2009

Nearly-equal rights. Still second-class citizenship.

This is the story (so far) of our civil union in New Jersey, and why I am not, in fact, excited about it.

My wife and I recently moved to New Jersey for her work. After we arrived, I started researching NJ's domestic partnership and civil union laws.

For same-gender couples, NJ offers everything but marriage: the law is exactly the same as for opposite-gender couples, with one major exception: "civil union" rather than "marriage." There is one application, whether you're applying for a civil union license or a marriage license; it has spaces for "Applicant A" and "Applicant B." The federal government won't recognize a NJ civil union, and other states might or might not, but the state of NJ can't control that. NJ is fairly unusual in that, if you've had a registered domestic partnership, civil union, or anything similar in another jurisdiction, you can transfer it to NJ, as long as it offers the same benefits and responsibilities as a NJ civil union, instead of having to dissolve it and re-register; although, if it didn't offer the same state-level legal protection, you do have to dissolve it and re-register. But to transfer it, you still have to fill out the paperwork ("Re-Affirmation of Civil Union"), unlike a straight married couple who moves to NJ.

It seems like the NJ civil union is as close as you can come without it being marriage.

Interesting, I thought. I wonder if we want to do this?

When we were first married, five-plus years ago, we asked ourselves if we should take advantage of our city's relatively new domestic partnership law -- especially since I'd been peripherally involved with the campaign, and since the former head of City Council, who'd opposed it vehemently, was now the mayor, and would have to sign it. Heh. Reading the law and the application left a bad taste in our mouths: it had second-class citizenship written all over it. We recycled the paperwork.

When we embarked on this itinerant phase of our lives for Beloved Wife's job, we moved to another city that turned out to have a domestic partnership law. What's more, we were required to register as domestic partners if I was going to be on her insurance -- the same way opposite-gender couples were required to marry if an opposite-gender spouse was going to be on the employee's insurance. Reading the law and the application, we found, to our surprise, no bad taste in our mouths: the city ordinance spoke of the diversity in our community, and of the need to protect all families.

We did have to giggle, though. The 2-foot by 3-foot, hand-calligraphed and hand-illustrated certificate, with our wedding promises, our signatures, and the signatures of more than 200 witnesses, never got us a legal thing. The 8 1/2-by-11 computer-generated certificate (not even the signatures were "live") with the shiny gold seal on it got me legal access to my wife's health insurance. We put the city certificate in our file cabinet for future reference; our Quaker wedding certificate hangs on our living room wall.

The following year, the voters of that state passed an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as one man and one woman, and making domestic partner benefits illegal (including my insurance coverage). My wife's employer, along with the city we lived in and many other employers in the state, found ways to insure "other adults" while being in full compliance with the law. I retained my health insurance, so did many other adults, and most importantly, so did many children: the new amendment put second-parent adoptions in jeopardy, and a lot of kids were in danger of losing coverage if they were on a non-birth parent's insurance.

We moved again; last year, we lived in a state with a very, very good domestic partnership law. Still not marriage, but nearly everything-but-marriage. We did not feel any leading or need to register: my wife's employer did not require us to; that state doesn't have income tax; we were going to be there for a year; this was an area with a very good record of honoring powers of attorney and other legal paperwork for same-gender couples.

But now we've moved to a state with a good civil union law, in an area with a mixed record of honoring powers of attorney and other legal paperwork. We're going to be here longer; we both have medical issues; we're thinking about kids.

All good reasons, but I was still doubtful. In my head, anyway. Someplace else, deep down, I had a very strong feeling about registering a civil union.

We've talked about getting legally married in Massachusetts or Canada. We've talked about domestic partnership and civil union and everything-but-marriage laws in other states. And I have felt very clearly that I am not willing to settle for second-best, for nearly-but-not-quite equal.

So, one, it has to be marriage. Not domestic partnership, not civil union. It has to be the same thing regardless of the gender of my partner, the same thing as it is for opposite-gender couples. And two, it has to be recognized by the federal government. Even if we were married legally in MA or Canada, our marriage would not be honored fully in the United States. Some states would recognize it; some wouldn't; they'd pretty much get to choose. We'd still pay federal income tax on my health insurance as "taxable income." We'd still have to carry powers of attorney -- and add our everything-but-marriage license -- when we traveled.


I went back and looked at the law here in NJ again. It's still everything-but-marriage. It's still not federally recognized, like opposite-gender marriages are.

But, I had a strong feeling that we need to register our civil union.

I'm not sure if it's an actual leading or not. Would it feel this uncomfortable if it wasn't? Perhaps it's just a good idea, and perhaps not-quite-equality is not a good reason not to take advantage of the legal protections we do have.

I brought it up to Beloved Wife, and she agreed. Here's what she says:

"One of the things that is infuriating about marriage law in the U.S. is the blurring between religious and civil marriage. True separation of church and state would mean that the state recognized civil partnerships between same or opposite-gender couples, and if a couple wanted then they could also have a religious ceremony. Really, I think that if the New Jersey situation for same-sex couples were as good in real life as it is on paper, it should be the nationwide situation for all couples. It leaves a sour taste first because it's separate and almost-but-not-quite-equal (not all employers provide equal benefits, and some civil partners have had difficulties with health providers), within NJ vis-a-vis marriage, and because of all of the ways that our partnership won't be recognized outside of NJ or by the feds."

So, we printed out the application. I filled out the parts for Applicant A while she was cooking dinner. She filled out the parts for Applicant B while I cleaned up after dinner. We called the parents of some dear friends, who live nearby, and asked if they would be our witnesses. They would be honored, they said, and in fact, they sounded excited. We figured out a date when one of them could go with us to Boro Hall to apply for the license; I called the Boro Hall and made an appointment with the Registrar's/Health Department to fill out our application and pay our $28. ($3 stays with the Boro; $25 goes to the local domestic violence shelter.)

I had a question about something, though: on the application, you have to provide information about when the ceremony will take place. We already had a ceremony, it just wasn't legally binding. The clerk and I talked it through, and the conclusion she came to was: Yes, in order for this to be legally binding, you have to have another ceremony. She gave me the phone numbers of a judge and of the mayor for us to call.

For another ceremony.

Reading the applicable material carefully, it does look like the ceremony is necessary to make this legally binding. We can't just get someone official to sign our license, even with us present and in front of witnesses. There has to be a freaking ceremony. "Do you, Stasa..."

We had our appointment at the Registrar's/Health Department Office to fill out the application. (Both our friends came, and tossed a coin to decide who would sign the application as witness.) Then we trudged down to the Mayor's Office to find out if she could perform our civil union ceremony.

No, we didn't have a date picked out. What would be convenient for her? No, we don't have a time picked out. When would be convenient for her? Our flexibility both puzzled and inconvenienced the poor aide to the mayor. The four of us -- Beloved Wife and our two witnesses -- picked out a proposed date. The aide continued down the form to questions about the ceremony: Anyone giving either party away? Single ring, double ring, no ring? How many people present? How large a wedding party?

We've already had a religious ceremony, we explained. We just want something nice and simple.

Well, I'll fill this out and give it to the bailiff, and we'll call you and let you know if the mayor agrees to do your ceremony and if she's available on this date at this time.

We could do another day or time if it doesn't, I offered.

If this doesn't work, you can talk about it when we call, she said. I have to put down a date and time.

Ah, bureaucracy.

As we were leaving, our friends offered, If she can't do it, we know one of our ministers would. (They're members of the Unitarian Universalist Church in our town.)

Well, for that, we could probably get someone from the Meeting here, I said. But I don't think it would feel right to have anyone religious do it. We already had our religious wedding, in our former Meeting (the same year as their son and daughter-in-law; in fact, we were in each other's weddings). To have a religious officiant feels like invalidating our wedding, or acting like it never happened. It would feel like a violation of the Testimony of Integrity. I think we just want it to be civil. Beloved Wife nodded.

To their credit, that made sense to our friends, and we could tell they were a little troubled by it.

A few days later, the mayor's aide called, sounding perky and excited. Genuinely so. "Hi, it's So-and-So from the Mayor's Office, calling about your wedding. Mayor So-and-So has agreed to perform your civil union ceremony on thus-and-such date and time. Now, I'll mail you a copy of the ceremony she uses, and you can edit it and mail it back to me."

(Here's a cool thing: the mayor does not accept honoraria for weddings or civil unions. She asks for a donation to the domestic violence shelter instead, and provides their information and an envelope addressed to them.)

We called our friends: Does this date and time work for you? Yes, we'll be there. And we'd like to take you out to lunch afterwards, if we may.

Sigh. Is everyone involved more excited about this than I am?

It's a small town; the envelope arrived the next day. The ceremony was a variation on the standard Do you, lawfully-joined, in sickness and in health, hard times and easy, til death do you part.

We thought about it. We talked about it. We sat down together and worked it out. We went through every part of it, asking, Can we say this? We tried them out on each other. Does this work?

Does this feel honest and true?

And in the end, we couldn't repeat any part of our Quaker wedding promises. In part, because someone will be pronouncing us, and that is just not compatible with Quaker marriage. It would be lying to repeat that in front of the mayor and have her pronounce us. Part of it is also because we've already said those promises, and while we may (and do!) repeat them to each other, it can't ever be on command. Part of it is that it feels like lying to repeat them as part of another ceremony after which we somehow have a different status.

And some of it is about separation of church and state. We've had our religious wedding. This is purely and completely about civil law.

We found we couldn't repeat any part of the mayor's proposed ceremony that duplicated the wedding we'd already had.

I, in particular, found I didn't want any part of the ceremony to have any significance that wasn't purely legal. So what we said had to be in the service of the civil union contract, with the mayor pronouncing the contract as now in effect, as now legally-binding and legally-recognized.

We felt good about the edits we came up with. They felt right.

We weren't sure what the Mayor's Office would think.

I dropped the edits by the Mayor's Office, and it turns out in-person was a good thing. The clerk was definitely taken aback. I don't know if she'll be willing to do something so short; I mean, this will take five minutes...

Yes, I said. We want something very simple. She blinked. We've already had a religious ceremony, I added. She blinked again.

I understand, she said, I just don't know if the mayor will be personally comfortable... she trailed off.

I decided to try to explain, a little. I explained that we're Quakers, that we had a Quaker wedding, that to repeat those vows could be a violation of the Testimony of Integrity, that...

I could tell she didn't get the "Quaker" or "Testimony of Integrity" part; but she got the "religious reasons" and "violation" part. Her expression changed, became a little less strained, a little less puzzled. She pulled out a Post-It, put it on the sheet, and started a note to the mayor.

I'll tell her it's for religious reasons. I think she'll be fine with it, but I'll call you tomorrow and let you know.

I thanked her and left.

I felt torn.

I called her later and said, We can bring information about our Quaker wedding with us if that will help the mayor feel more comfortable. No, no, you don't need to do that, she said, I'll talk to her and I'll call you back tomorrow.

I don't want to rain on anyone's parade. Our friends, and these strangers in the Boro Hall, from the registrar and the registrar's clerk to the mayor's aide to the mayor, are clearly and genuinely happy for a same-gender couple to be getting the closest thing currently possible to equal rights. They don't get many same-gender couples -- when I went back and said I was there to proof my civil union license, I didn't even have to give my name; we're the only same-gender couple in process right now. But not one person has stuttered, looked flustered at the two-women-thing or the civil union thing, not one person has even asked me about my future husband. So on some level, they get it; I can tell.

I don't want to come across as disrespectful of the mayor, of our friends, of anyone involved. And I'm glad that I'm about to get a level of legal protection I've never had.

But this thing by which we're getting nearly-equal rights?

It's discriminatory.

And that makes this whole situation infuriating.

It's discriminatory because it doesn't grant us equal rights. We won't be legally married. Even in this state, there are employers and hospitals which grant certain benefits and privileges to married couples but which don't recognize civil unions, because they're not marriages. There are no federal benefits or responsibilities: my taxes will still be whacked, and if Beloved Wife dies next week, I still won't be able to collect her social security.

It's discriminatory because we are required to have another ceremony. And if we move to another place where this civil union isn't recognized, we will have to dissolve this civil union and, if we have to have a ceremony to make whatever they offer (if anything) legally-binding, we will have to have another ceremony. And the same thing again if we move again, which we might well have to for my wife's work. How many times will we have to do this? I have F/friends who keep a spreadsheet of their legal unions.

As my mathematician friend Deb says, 1st wedding + N, where N>0, is discriminatory. Opposite-gender couples do not have to go through this.

And so, I am furious.

I have to have a second ceremony because of the gender of my partner. I have to have a second ceremony because the state we lived in when we got married didn't recognize our marriage. We will have to have a third ceremony if the law in whatever state we move to next requires it. We have to do everything someone in an opposite-gender couple has to do, plus more, in order to get fewer legal rights, responsibilities, and protections.

I am frustrated and hurt because our wonderful wedding, with our beloved families, friends, and community, is not visible in this process, might as well not have happened for all it matters to anyone involved with our civil union.

And there are all these well-meaning straight people who are excited for me.

The mayor agreed to our pared-down ceremony.

Who knows how I will actually feel when we go back to Boro Hall again for our civil union ceremony and when our friends take us out to lunch. Maybe my anger will be tempered by pleasure and even some joy.

I'll try to let you know, gentle readers.

In the meantime, we'd certainly appreciate your holding us, our witnesses, the mayor, and her staff in the Light.

And everyone facing discrimination.

And everyone working to end discrimination.


DCL said...

I've been trying to write a comment on your post for a few minutes and I'm having trouble coming up with something to say that encapsulates my frustration about the situation you find yourself in.

I agree. Being pushed to have ceremony after ceremony to commit yourself to the same person due to the patchwork of incompatible state and local laws, is insane. And discriminatory.

It's helpful, I guess, to think of the insanity as transitional. I do believe we'll have nationwide gay marriage in our lifetimes. All of this crap is perhaps a side effect of our nation's growing pains as we move toward that goal. I don't know if being aware of that makes it easier to swallow, or simply more outrageous.

It's sad that this may not be the last civil ceremony you need to have in your life.

Great, thought-provoking writing as always, Stasa.

Pann said...

I'm furious on your behalf. And sad.

And, still, a little hopeful. Hopeful that someday this kind of outrageous discrimination will be one of those absurd things of the past.

Sterghe said...

Thank you for sharing this, Stasa. --Weavre

Bush Quaker said...


I continue to follow your trials with great interest, and share some measure of your frustration. The federal nature of the US seems to turn this into some kind of medieval torture; a slow dripping tap of bureaucracy and discrimination. Perhaps it is useful to think of the early Quakers and the countless privations and indignities that were heaped on them for standing by what they believed to be right, ad to take heart from their example and forbearance.

batshua said...

I'm insanely curious about what you had them do for the pared-down ceremony. Are you comfortable sharing?

Morgan said...

Thank you, folks, for your comments -- I'm sorry I haven't replied before now.

Batshua, if I recall rightly -- which tells you something! -- they went something like, "I, Stasa, take you, [Beloved Wife], to be my civil partner." End of story. ;-)

The mayor was actually very sweet about it; she clearly understood, and although she teased us gently, it was completely good-natured, and she didn't give us a hard time at all.

Get this -- we didn't have to sign anything that day. The mayor did, and our witnesses did. From a Quaker standpoint, this was very, very strange.

Thank you all very much for your support.