In 1994, Bill Mayo's partner of eighteen years, Steve, died of AIDS, leaving Bill, a professor of Engineering at Rutgers University, with $400,000 in medical bills and in the middle of a lawsuit against the University and the State of New Jersey. The Catholic hospital in which Steve died would not at first accept Mayo's presence as next of kin. Bill could not collect on Steve's right to a funeral plot provided by his union, nor escape the enormous medical bills. Social Security would pay funeral expenses and survivor benefits only to a spouse. The Union 1199 Pension Fund kept Steve's pension, even though Mayo had been explicitly designated as his beneficiary. The need to pay the medical bills required Mayo to sell their condominium quickly at a significant financial loss. The events surrounding Steve's death "poured gasoline" on the fire that has now propelled Bill to leadership in an effort to pass "Domestic Partnership" legislation in New Jersey Legislature.
Mayo is now the chair of an umbrella group, the Task Force for Family Equality (TAFFE), which has begun the work of obtaining legislative sponsors for a "Domestic Partnership Bill." This legislation is largely a product of the work of Michael Pasnik, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the ACLU. It is intended to address all state laws that affect matters relating to marital status-matters which most married couples can take for granted-such as rights to hospital visits, medical decisions, intestacy and estate tax issues, immunity from testifying against a spouse in legal proceedings, jail visits, and, last but not least, medical insurance.
In addition to the gay and lesbian community, most of these concerns are shared by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) since older single or widowed people attempt to live together in supportive relationships. Thus, the bill as written is not limited to same-sex relation-ships. It defines domestic partnership as "two people living together in a committed relationship." By paying a small fee, like that for a marriage license, partners would be able to obtain an official certificate from a registry after committing themselves to sharing joint financial responsibility for each other and sharing a common residence. Such a certificate now exists in New York City and enables city employees to share benefits with their partners. The drafted legislation for New Jersey would, in many cases, require little more than inserting "or domestic partner" after "spouse" in existing state law. "So it's a broad bill in New Jersey," says Mayo, "but it still falls short on some issues." For example, it would affect only state employees as far as obtaining health benefits for their partners; employees of private companies are usually governed by federal law and, like federal employees, would not be subject to the health benefits provisions of this legislation. In the same way, domestic partners would continue to have no rights to each other's Social Security benefits or to marriage benefits under rules of the IRS. In spite of an improvement to the current situation, the proposed bill would not be able to protect domestic partners once they left New Jersey. Outside its borders they would be legal strangers.
Mayo has evidence from polling that many legislators see the "Domestic Partnership Bill" as a welcome compromise between demands for state recognition of same-sex marriage and an existing bill (the Defense of Marriage Act-DOMA) which denies recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states, blatantly violating the "full faith and credit" clause of the US Constitution. Nevertheless, Mayo expects the going will be tough. He has provided a short, question and answer guide to help legislators navigate through the 600 pages of the Bill and to address some of the likely objections. For example: "If you pass this bill, won't you be undercutting traditional family values?" Answer: "No, just the reverse. The bill will actually be legitimizing many families that already exist. It will help to stabilize many fragile families."
Mayo points out that fewer than 10-percent of Americans now live in a traditional family and that only 56-percent of the adult population is married. The increase in unmarried adults is so rapid that by the year 2015 they are expected to outnumber the married. The fastest growing segment of the adult population, he states, is grandparents with dependent grandchildren. Ninety-percent of this group are on welfare and 56-percent have no health insurance. "It is silly," he says, "to define a family with very rigid rules and then force everybody into that mold."
With California and Hawaii having already passed state-wide domestic partnership bills, and Vermont on the verge of doing so, Mayo is confident that in the long run, a new generation-and the movement of society in general-will produce widespread recognition of the value of non-traditional families and relationships. Indeed, some religions have already gone further in this recognition than has civil law. European countries have, as usual, moved ahead of the United States in accommodating social change with France recently joining the Scandinavian countries in recognizing domestic partnership. The Canadian Supreme Court is currently pushing Parliament to establish domestic partnerships on a nationwide basis.
Concurrently with his leadership of TAFFE, Mayo is still pursuing a lawsuit against Rutgers University which refuses to offer more than 3/5 of the health benefits it provides for traditional spouses of university faculty. The claims filed by the ACLU and cooperating attorneys on behalf of individual faculty members and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) against the State-which went directly to the Appellate Court-lost by an unanimous decision, with two of the three judges noting that their hands were tied by the limitations of New Jersey laws. The bill awaiting introduction is the result of that ruling.
Sadly, Bill Mayo will leave the ACLU-NJ Board at the end of his term in June this year to devote himself to changing the way New Jersey laws and institutions define and defend mutually supportive relationships. The ACLU will work cooperatively with Mayo in support of the Domestic Partnership legislation.