Volume 75, Number 5 | June 22- 28, 2005

Jo-Ann Shain, left, and Mary Jo Kennedy, right, with their daughter Aliya Shain

All not wedded to marriage, but most like ring of it

By Johanna Petersson

On the front page of last week’s New York Times Sunday magazine, in a black-and-white photo, two middle-aged women are kissing, holding champagne flutes. Over the photo a large red bar is drawn, with the headline, “What’s their real problem with gay marriage? (It’s the gay part.)” But for some radical gay activists and feminists the problem is marriage — in their opinion an obsolete conservative institution — and that the gay community should aim higher; aim for liberation. On the other hand, for the majority of gays and lesbians, marriage is a matter of civil liberty that should be awarded to everyone.

Bill Dobbs said he gets shivers down his spine whenever he mentions Love Makes a Marriage, an organization promoting gay marriage rights. Dobbs has been a gay activist for more than three decades but he thinks the gay movement is losing its soul and becoming “middle class” by pressing for marriage.

“Stonewall was about gay liberation,” Dobbs said. “Now everyone is worried about getting cheaper gas for their sports utility vehicles, it is all about being like everyone else.”

Feminists and gay activists on the far left are rarely heard in the debate over gay marriage. They support recognizing both gay and straight relationships, and not against religious marriage as such. But they’re not convinced marriage should be something the state should endorse, while for gay activists it’s a question of priorities. Dobbs, a self-proclaimed civil libertarian, stresses that there are so many other issues that need the gay community’s attention — likening marriage to Wal-Mart pushing out the local hardware stores.

“There should be a menu of choices of kinship for everyone: domestic partners, civil unions, single-parent adoption,” Dobbs said. “We shouldn’t be focusing on marriage. What we should be focusing on are single-parent health, social justice, work for everyone, anti-discriminatory legislation, in addition to reforming kinship. But the current gay leadership is backward, has backward ideas. The issue of social justice,” Dobbs said, “which is quite different from equality, has been forced out.”

Referring to the covenant marriage legislation efforts in Louisiana, Arkansas and Arizona, aimed at creating a voluntary form of marriage restricting the rights of a no-fault divorce, Dobbs said he’s afraid that the gay community’s efforts to pursue marriage and nothing but marriage is creating a backlash as well as support for conservatives.

He shares the view of Deborah Glick, the 66th District’s assemblymember. To start with, Glick feels, “civil union” should replace the term “marriage” in state legislation. In 2004, Glick introduced an act to amend the state’s Domestic Relations Law in relation to civil unions that would abolish the institution of marriage and instead see a civil contract extended to everyone. “Religious marriage is one thing, extending benefits and responsibilities to a couple a different matter, and the state shouldn’t discriminate in conferring benefits to couples,” Glick said.

On the other side of the spectrum, Vincent Maniscalco and his husband, Edward DeBonis, as reported in The Villager last year, got married in Massachusetts in June 2004. For them it had been a long road. As both of them are Catholic, it was important for them to have the sacrament of marriage, but also to gain access to the benefits and acknowledgement that married straight couples have.

“We introduce each other as each other’s husbands and it is a good feeling,” said Maniscalco. “And no one seems to bat an eye — but maybe they won’t do that to our face.”

In their daily life not much seems to have changed. Their health insurances came up for review this year but they were told that it would not make any difference to file a joint insurance, so they kept their separate ones. Although neither the federal nor state government acknowledges married same-sex couples, when it came to filing their tax forms, the couple still asked their accountant to include a statement saying that they are married — both to be truthful but also as a way of showing that there are New York State same-sex married couples.

Despite feeling supported in their marriage, there are moments when they realize it is not fully recognized. Maniscalco recounted a story of when he was admitted to St. Vincent’s Hospital’s emergency room. “As it was really busy, the staff constantly asked people who necessarily didn’t have to be there to leave,” said Maniscalco. “They allowed Eddie to be there but only for parts of the time. But at the same time, we could see them making exceptions for straight couples. Here we were in the middle of West Village, being discriminated against.”

Considering marriage the highest form of recognition for their relationship, both spiritually, socially and legally, Maniscalco will opt for nothing less than marriage.

“I understand that not everyone wants to be part of the institution of marriage, but over the past few years the issue has developed,” he said. “Now we have actually achieved marriage in one state. We know we are fighting a long-term battle, just like in so many issues, but we think it is a battle worth fighting.”

One of the same-sex couples demanding the right to marriage whose case is working its way up to toward the highest court in New York are Mary-Jo Kennedy and Jo Ann Shain from Brooklyn. They met at a public-health conference while working in the same hospital. They had their first date 23 years ago in the hospital cafeteria, hit it off right away and have more or less been together ever since. In 1988, they had a daughter, Aliya, by anonymous insemination. For them marriage is a civil institution

Shain understands those with views similar to Dobbs. She was one of them not long ago. She also agrees that the timing to pursue this issue is not ideal. “I did have the opinion that marriage is not for me, that it is a straight thing that I don’t need,” she said. “But I have had a real sea change, I have been radicalized. As a result of the case, reading more about the issue, I have come to see how important it is to take back what this issue is really about, marriage as a civil institution and both the legal rights and societal recognition that comes with it — rights and benefits that other people have and that we don’t have.”

Shain is adamant about what she wants, and she feels that civil unions, even if they would be with all the rights that come with marriage are not enough. “Civil unions, at this point, it’s just not the same as marriage,” she said. “It is like sitting in the back of the bus: you are going to the same location, but it’s not the same thing. We are not ready to settle for civil unions. For me, marriage is an institution, but I don’t necessarily see it as conservative. There are over 1,000 benefits associated with marriage that they take for granted and benefit from, and we don’t.”

Four other couples in addition to Shain and Kennedy are part of the lawsuit by Lambda legal. Right now the case in the midlevel courts and they are expecting arguments will be held in July with a decision to come sometime in the fall.

Several times in the course of an interview, Shain said how proud she is that she and her partner are in the forefront of this issue and that now their daughter Aliya also has come to feel very strongly about it.

“Our daily life would probably not change so much,” Shain said. “I can’t imagine. But knowing that we have the same rights as other people. That would be a real feeling of accomplishment. That together with the four other couples, achieving this victory, would be a real satisfying feeling.”

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