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Today is Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Civil Unions a Step to Marital Rights

Tracy Heenan found herself in a pattern of easily darting in and out of relationships.

But when she met Cathy Webster, Tracy wanted to commit herself in a way she never had before. And that became possible two years ago this month, when the Vermont state legislature unveiled civil unions -- a parallel legal status for gay couples that gives us the same state-governed rights and responsibilities as heterosexually married couples.

"It makes me accountable," Tracy says. "I really wanted to make this relationship different."

Tracy and Cathy, who live in the tiny Vermont town of South Hero, now jointly file their state income taxes and got a $1,500-a-year break on their car insurance when their out-of-state insurer decided to treat their civil union no differently than a traditional marriage. And they are both the legal parents of their children, Sarah, 1, and Joshua, 2.

"No way would we move from Vermont. We'd jeopardize too much," says Tracy, pointing out that no other state yet has recognized Vermont's civil unions, so living elsewhere could unravel the legal safety net now protecting their family.

Since Vermont took its wonderfully groundbreaking step two years ago, 4,122 same-sex couples have entered into civil unions. Of those, 3,440 couples have been from out of state. Only three unions have been dissolved, which must be done in the family court system like traditional divorces. Soon after Vermont chose to create the separate system, the Netherlands in 2001 opened full marriage to gay couples. Last month, the Canadian province of Quebec began offering civil unions to its gay couples. And several U.S. states are now weighing civil unions. Looking back on what having a civil union means to their relationship, couples say much of the benefit is psychological: They feel safer, knowing that the legal document gives them a better chance of being treated properly as family in, say, a medical emergency.

Unlike Tracy and Cathy, those of us from out-of-state have no way to know whether our civil union certificate will persuade government officials, businesses or individuals to treat us the same as married couples. Bonnie Swadling and Kathleen Bienenstein of Sault Ste. Marie are among those couples trying to find jobs in Vermont because their home state doesn't recognize their civil union. They were turned down the one time they tried to use their civil union -- to get the married price break when switching from cable to satellite dish television.

"They never gave us the discount. They just ignored us and hoped we'd drop it," says Bonnie, who had faxed a copy of her civil union certificate to the business and asked that she and Kathleen be treated as a married couple.

Kathleen has been diagnosed with lupus, so the couple is fearful that she eventually won't have health insurance if she's no longer able to work as an auto design engineer since Bonnie's employer doesn't offer gay partner health insurance benefits.

Similarly, Kirk Schiebold and Ken Hermonat of Ferndale tried to use their civil union to put Kirk on Ken's work health insurance plan. While Kirk's employer was supportive, the insurance company declined to extend the coverage.

"We told the insurer about our civil union, but it didn't matter," Ken says. "They said Michigan defines what marriage is." Meanwhile, in Georgia, a state court of appeals this year rebuffed as "flawed" the argument that a civil union should be treated as a marriage in disputes between ex-spouses concerning overnight visitation with children. Civil unions are a critical first step in achieving equality for gay couples. But as the past two years demonstrate, only marriage will translate into full equality.

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