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September|October 2003
The Practitioner By Benjamin Smith
The Real Harm By Gabrielle S. Friedman
Standard bearer By Fred Strebeigh
A Bigger Tent By Katharine Mieszkowski
Profiling's Gender Gap By Daniel Brook
Coming Out to America By Tyler Maroney
The Love Charm A Story By Eugene Volokh
Ex Offender By Robert J.
In Defense Of Prostitution By Heidi Fleiss as told to Nadya Labi
My Gay Divorce By Laurie Essig

My Gay Divorce

By Laurie Essig

THIRTEEN YEARS AGO I MET LIZA COWAN, THE WOMAN OF MY DREAMS. We dated, moved in together, got a couple of dogs, and eventually had children. In other words, we became a family. We didn't get married, however, because we were two women. But in June 2001, we moved to Vermont and took advantage of the state's unique provision for civil unions, which come with all of the privileges of marriage except for the name. We were one of 5,671 same-sex couples to be "civil-unioned." Now we're one of 16 to divorce and, as far as we know, the only ones in that group with kids.

I wish the story of my gay divorce were gayer. Don't get me wrong. The decision to break up our family was devastating. I doubt either one of us will ever fully recover from the heartbreak of it. Yet the divorce itself, like the marriage, feels like a farce.

Neither Liza nor I needed the state to recognize our relationship. Our civil union was about saving thousands of dollars a year in health insurance bills: We could only qualify for the discounted "family rate" if we were civil-unioned. I know our unromantic attitude must be a grave disappointment to many courageous gay activists. But whether a couple is gay or straight, I don't think that legal rights should follow from emotional and sexual alliances. Why can't a family be headed by any adults—a twosome or a threesome, monogamous or not—who share a living arrangement and declare that they're a family?

Given how unfairly restrictive marriage is, I can't take it seriously. So I thought of getting civil-unioned as paperwork. When I called the justice of the peace—the first on a list of names at my local city hall—I was thinking about the money we'd save if our insurance company treated us as a family in its next billing period. "I need a civil union, today if possible," I said.

"Would you like to meet me at the boathouse? We'll perform the ceremony as the sun sets on the lake behind you," a voice responded eagerly.

We turned down the lake and the sunset and showed up at his office an hour later, cranky children in tow. All of us were sweaty from a day at the beach.

"Did you write any vows? Some poetry perhaps?" asked the earnest middle-aged man who opened the door.

"No, we're just doing it to save money. Can you hurry up?" I grunted. Our oldest daughter, then 5, took her toy microphone in hand: "Ladies and gentlemen, come one, come all, to see the wedding of my mothers. That's right, ladies and gentlemen, two women are getting married even if that bad, horrible president guy doesn't want them to. For just one dollar, you can see this lesbian wedding. They may even kiss on the lips. Yuck!"

"Gimme, gimme!" shouted our then-3-year-old, grabbing at the microphone. Fisticuffs began. The J.P., all illusions gone, read the necessary lines. When we asked how much we should pay him, the poor man muttered that his regular fee was $250, but $20 would be fine this time, seeing as he hadn't done much.

Though we never mentioned it to anyone, Liza and I filed a joint state tax return and checked "married or civil-unioned" on every form we filled out in Vermont. Which means that now we have to get a divorce. Of course, gay divorce, like gay marriage, has to be called by another name—dissolution. But according to Deborah Lashman of the Burlington law firm Schoenberg & Associates, a dissolution is handled in Vermont exactly as a divorce would be. For Liza and me, this was a matter of mutually agreeing to divide up our property and parenting obligations and then filing the papers in family court.

But only Vermont recognizes the right of a gay couple to dissolution. As a result, a lot of the out-of-state couples who happily traveled here to tie the knot are now stuck in legally binding relationships. A Connecticut court recently ruled that it couldn't grant a dissolution to two men because doing so would mean recognizing a civil union, which state law forbade. In West Virginia, however, a dissolution was granted in December 2002 to two women with a Vermont civil union. The judge who heard their petition decided that he could recognize their civil union. It wasn't a marriage, he reasoned, but rather an entirely new legal entity.

Same-sex marriage advocates hope the West Virginia ruling will serve as an example for other states. Gay divorce may then be the Trojan horse that gets gay marriage into the courts. It figures that the break up of queer families could prove more acceptable than their union.

Laurie Essig is the author of Queer in Russia.

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