Separate & Unequal: Stories from 2008 NJ Civil Union Review Commission

An Emergency Room Isn’t the Place to Explain a Civil Union

During the summer of 2008, Gina Pastino, a Montclair resident, was admitted to the emergency room because she was at risk for a potentially fatal cardiac arrhythmia. She gave her information, including consent for the doctors to talk with her civil union partner, Naomi. When Naomi arrived and asked about Gina, the attending physician said she couldn’t give her any information. Naomi had to explain civil unions to the doctor, who had never heard of one before, when she should have been focused on the health of her partner.

“Once again, we were faced with an emergency medical crisis that was potentially life-threatening, and here she is having to…justify who we are to each other,” Gina Pastino said.

Married Couples Don’t Carry Flash Drives to Prove It

Marriage Certificate

One partner in a civil union couple in New Jersey showed the Commissioners a flash drive that both he and his partner keep on key chains. The flash drives contain living wills, advanced health care directives, and powers of attorney for the couple, as they fear being unable to adequately explain their relationship to emergency room personnel during a medical crisis. The witness testified that opposite-sex married couples need not live with this uncertainty because a mere declaration that someone is the “wife,” “husband,” or “spouse” of someone who is ill will provide immediate access and decision-making rights.

Not “the Equivalent of Marriage”

Labor Attorney Rosemarie Cipparulo, who has represented labor unions at the bargaining table, explained the differences insurance providers see between marriages and civil unions, despite anti-discrimination clauses: “The problem there is that the insurance provider does not recognize the civil union to be the equivalent of marriage. The result is a refusal to extend the benefits.”

Separate and Demoralized

Same-sex civil union couples described the demoralizing experience in the workplace when they received different benefits from their straight colleagues.

Removed by Security for Not Being Married

In 2007, when a man from Plainfield was admitted to a New Jersey hospital, his civil union partner was not only not allowed to see him, but removed by hospital security.

“Warning: This can’t be your spouse…”

One woman from Central New Jersey filled out an online form when registering for insurance at her new job. The option of “domestic partners” did not carry dental or vision coverage, but the system refused to take “spouse.” When she entered “spouse,” she saw this message: “Warning: This can’t be your spouse because employee and dependent are of the same gender.”

“You know what?” “What?” “You’re married.”

Wedding Cake

Laura Patey and Leigh Powers, a married couple in Massachusetts, are the mothers of two children who were adopted at age 11. Both children had been placed for adoption and returned, suffering heartbreaking loss before Patey and Powers adopted them into a secure home. Laura Patey, who grew up in New Jersey, told the Civil Union Review Commission:

“After our civil marriage, you know, I’d be in the car with Alex and he’d say, ‘You know what?’ And I’d say, ‘What?’ And he’d go, ‘You’re married.’ And it would just come up for weeks. He’d say, ‘You know what? You’re married.’ It was a big deal. It was always in the forefront of his thinking...You know, kids who have not had family, haven’t had that sort of connection and real understanding, attachment issues are huge. And a sense of validation of being part of a real family.”

“You can’t get married. Obviously something is wrong with it.”

Ashley, a high school student in Essex County, told a story of a classmate who asked if she had a boyfriend. She answered that she had a girlfriend. The classmate said, “That’s wrong; you have a disease. You need to get help for that.” The girl asked, “Why is it a disease?” and the classmate answered, “You can’t get married. Well, that’s why, you can’t get married. Obviously something is wrong with it.”

Second-Class Sibling

Tom, a teenager from Essex County, said this about civil unions: “It’s a separate word. It’s totally different. It’s like if my two brothers can be married and have their relationship with their...wife be called a marriage and I can’t, that puts me in a second-class citizen state, which I never want to be in, which I currently am in right now but I am desperately trying to get out of.”

“The biggest thing in my life”

Raised by his moms Susan Shepherd and Marsha Hams in Massachusetts, Peter Hams-Shepherd went on to become a hockey star in high school and college.

“Every time I let somebody in and I said, ‘Hey, I have to tell you something,’ I’d say, ‘My parents are gay,’ and no matter what they said, my next reaction was, ‘Don’t tell anybody.’ And that’s no way to grow up.

Carlos and Richard

“After my parents got their marriage license, all that changed. For the first time in my life I could stand there and I had a word to describe my family and that word could describe it to everybody because everybody already knew what a marriage was. You know, they didn’t have to question.

“It’s been the biggest thing in my life. You know, I can’t stop talking about my parents. It’s easier for me to go around and talk to friends that I’ve had for 20 years, to go up to them and speak about my family openly now and they get it. When you say that your family is married, they just get it and there’s not a question. I just wish it would have happened when I was little, so I didn’t have to go through all this stuff.

“It was just the best feeling I ever had. And part of it, too, I think was I felt like finally I was protected. My parents’ fears probably creeped into my subconscious mind too as a kid, that they would lose me for some reason.”

An Emergency is Enough to Worry About on its Own

Marsha Hams, who was married in Massachusetts to Susan Shepherd, said, “If you have a car crash and you end up in a hospital you don’t know, or an ER, you know you’re going to be treated like anybody else, and that’s a huge relief.”

A Relationship Downgrade

Married couples in which one spouse is transgender expressed their fears about a downgrade in their relationship to second-class status. Their love was the same, but they faced the new anxiety of feeling their relationship status was in limbo.

A Resistance Unique to Civil Unions

Most New Jersey civil union couples who testified about difficulties in having their rights recognized told the Commission that they believe they would not have encountered the same level of resistance, or any resistance at all, had they been able to identify themselves as married.

Marriage certificate and wedding cake photos by Nate Gowdy.

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