'Domestic partnership' for committed gay pairs

March 20, 1996|By Joan Beck

CHICAGO -- In a recent lesbian ''wedding,'' one of the brides walked down the aisle in an elegant, traditional gown to meet her companion, who was wearing a ''tuxeda'' (a wedding tux designed for women) at the altar for a ceremony that had no legal standing.

In a gay ''wedding'' reception, two beaded grooms stood atop the wedding cake. But there was no marriage license to mark the occasion.

Hundreds of gay and lesbian couples have registered their union and commitment as ''domestic partners'' at city halls in a dozen gay-friendly cities. But the commitment agreements carry only a few of the legal rights of heterosexual marriage.

None of these arrangements satisfies homosexual couples who are determined to marry on the same basis, with the same rights and protections, as heterosexual pairs. But hopes and fears are growing that legal actions in Hawaii could make legal marriages possible for gays and lesbians in less than two years.

In 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court took a case filed in 1991 by a gay couple and two lesbian couples charging that a Hawaii law restricting marriage to one man and one woman illegally discriminates against homosexuals. The high court agreed and sent the case back to a lower court to rule on whether the state has any compelling interest in denying same-sex marriages.

''Full faith and credit''

The lower court is expected to rule this summer and the Hawaii Supreme Court to issue a final decision on the case in 1997. If the marriage of gays is held to be legal, thousands of homosexual couples from other states will travel to Hawaii, get married and return home to claim all the rights of married couples. The U.S. Constitution requires that ''full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records and judicial proceedings of every other state.'' All states now limit marriage to one man and one woman.

Many states are now scrambling to head off the legalizing of gay marriages by enacting prohibitive legislation. South Dakota passed a law last month limiting marriage to a man and a woman. Similar measures have been adopted or are moving through the legislative process in 20 other states.

Even in Hawaii the state House has approved a bill to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November limiting marriage to a man and a woman. The Hawaii Senate has passed a measure to create domestic partnerships for gay couples.

Nationally, the U.S. Senate is working on a Defense of Marriage Act that would also ban marriages between same-sex partners. Denmark legalized homosexual marriage in 1989, Norway in 1993 and Sweden in 1995. No other country has done so, although the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, gave its approval in a non-binding resolution in 1994.

Opposition for same-sex marriage comes from several sources. Some of it is homophobic, some of it conservative fundamentalism. Several major religious denominations oppose it, although a few are studying the issue and a few now bless commitment ceremonies for gays and lesbians. The pope has denounced it.

But most of the people who oppose gay marriages 63 percent in one poll simply believe that by its very definition, backed by thousands of years of human history, marriage means a man and a woman, and it's essential not to dilute that concept. Count me among them.

Gays have several good reasons for wanting the security and legal and social recognition of marriage.

They want the legal and financial benefits that come with marriage: Social Security and pension benefits. The health-insurance benefits. Tax advantages. Inheritance rights. The rights to share in health decisions, to visit partners in hospitals and jails. Clear parental rights. Bereavement leave when a partner dies.

For many homosexuals, the primary yearning for marriage is simply a desire for lasting, legal commitment and a marital status that testifies to their love before all the world.

There is even an advantage to marriage for gay partners if they split up. Divorce laws are much clearer for legal spouses than for homosexuals who have shared their lives for years and then decided to end their relationships. Now gays have no access to divorce court.

Society also benefits by having gays in stable, committed relationships, especially in the age of AIDS, and by being sure both partners have a legal obligation to any children involved.

These rights and benefits can be provided by legalizing what is now awkwardly called ''domestic partnerships.'' Pioneered by San Francisco in 1991 and now available in several large cities and small towns, these plans allowed gays and lesbians to register their relationship officially, just as heterosexual couples get a marriage license.

Benefits of a domestic partnership now differ, depending on the city, but at a minimum usually allow city employees to be treated as married in claiming employment perks. Some private employers choose to treat domestic partners as married couples in providing benefits, but they are not required to do so.

Anything less than marriage on equal terms with heterosexuals won't satisfy many gays who consider this an issue of civil rights, as well as love and benefits, and who want the symbolic stamp of mainstream approval and respect. But expanding the concept of domestic partnerships and pushing their acceptance by employers, government and society would help. And it would not dilute the sanctity of marriage, as the world has generally understood it for millenniums.

Joan Beck is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

Pub Date: 3/20/96

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