Marriage Equality: The Time is Now
Civil Unions, rather than granting gay and lesbian couples equal marriage rights, have perpetuated their second-class status.
Civil unions are a sham.
Rather than address the state Supreme Court’s requirement that the state create a system of equal treatment for same-sex couples, civil unions have perpetuated the inequities that existed prior to civil union’s passage in 2007.
“The New Jersey state constitution guarantees equal rights to all,” says Louise Walpin, of Monmouth Junction. “Yet we’re not receiving equal rights and something has to be done about it.”
Walpin and her partner, Marsha Shapiro, are among seven couples who have filed litigation asking the state Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage. The suit claims that the equality promised by the civil union law has never materialized and that same-sex couples continue to be denied workplace benefits and legal protections, lack the same rights as heterosexual married couples when dealing with medical issues and generally find themselves in a legal limbo.
The lawsuit is not the only front in the battle to win equal treatment. Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) continues to push his bill, which would grant same-sex couples the right to marry. Gusciora, the only openly gay member of the state Legislature, says that marriage equality’s time has come. Polls—especially those in New Jersey—are showing that a majority now favors marriage equality and elected officials are starting to listen.
“Attitudes are changing,” he told me recently. “More and more people know about same-sex couples and I feel, at end of day, it is about a commitment of love and forming a family unit, whether traditional or non-traditional, and the state should be supportive.”
Gusciora says there has been growing Republican support in the state Legislature and he anticipates enough Republicans adding their votes. The governor remains a wildcard—he has said on more than one occasion that he opposes same-sex marriage. Gusciora, however, does not view that as an obstacle.
“Even the worst-case scenario is he vetoes (marriage equality)” Gusciora says. “That advances the ball further because the public discussion is important.”
Six states now allow same-sex couples to marry, and several others are considering legislation to follow suit. Three of the states—New York, New Hampshire and Vermont—approved it legislatively, the other three—Iowa, Massachusetts and Connecticut—were forced by state courts to do so.
That’s why the Lambda Legal, a gay-rights advocacy group, is pressing the legal issues—and Walpin and Shapiro have signed on.
The couple, which has been together 22-and-a-half years, can cite numerous times that the state’s civil union designation has failed them.
When their youngest son Aaron died three years ago—he was born “profoundly medically, neurologically and cognitively disabled—they were forced to explain their civil union status at the funeral home so that they could protect their rights. The couple faces similar issues in other areas, such as health insurance and hospital care.
“People don’t understand what a civil union is,” Walpin says. “There are numerous examples. We’ve been in the hospital and tried to tell them we’re in a civil union relationship, but they insist on putting it down as single and in one case as status unknown.”
“Not long ago, I brought Louise into the emergency room,” Shapiro adds. “Had she not have been able to make decisions for herself, I would not have been able to make decisions for her. Even though we had documentation, it meant nothing because they didn’t know what it was.”
The civil unions law was supposed to change this. It was supposed to confer on couples like Walpin and Shapiro status equal to heterosexual married couples.
“It hasn’t changed,” Shapiro says. “This is why we have to have marriage equality. These stories are the same and they continue.”
Gusciora agrees. He tells the story of a lesbian couple in Princeton—his district includes Princeton until Dec. 31—married in Massachusetts.
“They are legally married in Massachusetts, but when they crossed the border they were civil unionized,” he says. “It inherently sets up second-class citizenship.”
It is a “second tier of recognition from the public” that does not exist for heterosexual married couples.
“We should do away with distinctions and just call it marriage,” he says. “We’ve already decided not to distinguish any shades of marriage for heterosexuals. We shouldn’t have the shades of distinction for same-sex couples.”
Walpin and Shapiro agree. They have been together since 1989 and were married in a religious ceremony in 1992. They’ve lived through difficult times involving their children, have mortgaged their house on more than one occasion and have demonstrated more staying power than most people who tie the knot. There is no reason that the state shouldn’t call their relationship what it is:
“If this isn’t a marriage then I don’t know what is,” Walpin says. “Stop making us into second-class citizens.”