Gays are forging paths in defining relationships

May 01, 1994|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff Writer

As lawmakers from Hawaii to Maryland grapple with the issues of same-sex marriage and "domestic partnership," gays and lesbians are redefining those relationships in diverse ways.

Jennifer Roberts and her partner have chosen to participate in a commitment ceremony performed by a rabbi and to construct a union that in some ways resembles a heterosexual marriage. The two women have lived together in Baltimore County nearly five years and are rearing two children from a marriage.

However, for two men whose relationship has weathered nine years, the choice has been to live in separate Charles Village homes -- six blocks apart.

Such decisions point to a continuing emphasis on individual choices within the gay and lesbian community.

Some same-sex couples see marriage as a symbol of social equality; as a ceremony that bestows certain economic and legal rights. Others want to celebrate their unions in a manner that is recognized by both social and religious institutions.

But not all are yearning to march down the aisle.

Some gays and lesbians argue that battles against discrimination are more important than the fight for access to the institution of marriage, which has deep heterosexual roots.

Still others point to alarmingly high divorce rates among heterosexual couples and wonder if there may be a better way.

Same-sex relationships, they say, are opportunities to create new, nontraditional family structures.

"The freedom of being gay or lesbian is the freedom to really question and choose our relationships," says Jennie Boyd Bull, who manages Baltimore's 31st Street Bookstore.

Across the nation, how society views gay couples is being challenged on many fronts. Hawaii could become the first state to legalize same-sex marriages, or at least to offer marital benefits to same-sex couples. There, the issue has been argued in the lower courts, the state Supreme Court and in the Legislature.

Extending benefits

Increasing numbers of cities, including San Francisco and New York, offer registries for domestic partners -- a legal construction for two people who live together that does not bestow religious recognition. Some cities extend municipal employees' health benefits to their partners.

Last summer, Takoma Park became the first Maryland municipality to approve a registry and an extension of city benefits to domestic partners.

In Baltimore, health benefits recently were extended to include partners of municipal employees. And tomorrow, the City Council may debate -- for the second time -- the creation of a city registry for domestic partners.

A rally for supporters of domestic partnership is scheduled tonight in front of Baltimore's City Hall. The proposed measure extends the traditional model of partners, its proponents say. Any two city residents of any sex, who live together and agree to share expenses, could register as partners.

While not opposing efforts to legalize same-sex marriage, some gay rights advocates express concern that the struggle to marry obscures more important civil rights issues. In addition, they say, legal marriage between homosexuals could limit gays and lesbians to a traditional model of relationships.

"There is pretty strong support for domestic partnership if it means equal pay for equal work and equal benefits on the job," says Barbara Samuels, chairwoman of the mayor's task force on gay and lesbian issues, who is a lawyer.

"The problem arises because the only model that results in economic recognition is the traditional marriage," she says.

Meaning of 'married'

"The problem is not that gays and lesbians cannot get married, but that our legal definition of what it means to be married needs to be changed," says Paula Ettelbrick of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in New York.

Meanwhile, members of the gay and lesbian community are building relationships in a variety of ways.

"Individual people, both heterosexual and gay or lesbian, are pursuing all kinds of models [of relationships] very quietly and in a personal way," says Ms. Samuels. "Most people are forging out new models that work for them."

One Baltimore-area lesbian couple was "married" in a spiritual ceremony held in a private home. Instead of bringing wedding gifts, guests made donations to an artificial insemination fund. Another lesbian couple has asked a male friend to be their sperm donor. Two gay men have adopted one child and may adopt a second. Another gay man has custody of his son from a previous, heterosexual, marriage and is raising him with his new partner.

'Sense of independence'

For David Bergman and his partner, the standard model of domesticity doesn't work. In the nine years that they have been together, they tried -- and rejected -- sharing a home. Now they are in Charles Village, six blocks apart.

"Living apart gives each of us a sense of independence and his own space that he can control," says Dr. Bergman, an English professor at Towson State University.

For him, the traditional model of marriage is confining.

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