Covering Your Partner

It all started when Suffolk County cop Karen Kolsch and her lover opened up an account at a sperm bank. That step toward creating a family has produced, after two years of gestation, a lot of bawling in the Suffolk County Legislature.

The seed of the current political crisis was the decision by Kolsch and girlfriend Debi Bagielto that Bagielto, who worked in the billing department of Long Island Jewish Hospital, would birth the couple's children and leave her job to be a stay-at-home mom. That's when Kolsch, an investigating officer since 1985, realized that her county employee benefits would not cover her lover or their children.

"It was something I had thought about, because I knew New York City had it and we didn't," Kolsch recalls. "But it didn't really affect me."

When it became clear how much it would affect her, she set off on two long and determined journeys: One has brought her and her partner through conception difficulties and given them a baby daughter, while another has succeeded in launching the first all-out struggle for domestic-partner rights on Long Island.

In June, Suffolk County Legislator George Guldi (D-Hampton Bays) introduced legislation that would create a domestic partnership registry for couples— gay or straight— who are county employees and then allow them to share health benefits. But with Election Day nearing, it's becoming too hot an issue for some.

When a vote neared in the Legislation and Personnel Committee in August, Presiding Officer Steve Hackeling (R-Huntington) assigned the bill to the budget committee. Guldi realized that many lawmakers wouldn't want to vote on the bill because voting in favor of something that would be perceived as pro-gay could, as he put it, "create personal embarrassment."

Hackeling readily admits to stalling the legislation. "I vigorously oppose the bill," he says, adding that he believed it came about simply because "a couple of Suffolk County workers want artificial insemination." Hackeling contends that Guldi wrote the bill "to solicit campaign contributions from the gay community. I don't know if he's really serious about it, but we'll find out."

But Guldi, who says he hasn't counted heads yet for support of the bill, doesn't seem worried. "Whether we do it in September or November is not of much consequence," he says. "I'm guessing there are people whose answer will change after the election."

The 34-year-old Kolsch— who since has become a mom with the 35-year-old Bagielto of 4-month-old Jaclyn— is watching and waiting. But she chuckles when asked if she considers herself an activist.

"I'm just looking for one thing," she says. "I never thought of it as being an 'activist.'"

The Force Was With Her

Kolsch and Bagielto met four years ago in a Williston Park softball league. Three years later, they both donned white dresses for a commitment ceremony in Hawaii. After reality set in about the health-benefit situation, Kolsch went to her union, the Police Benevolent Association, for help. She wound up seeking out Jeff Frayler, who was running for president of the Suffolk chapter of the PBA, and he turned the idea of domestic partnership benefits into a campaign issue, calling the other candidates and asking their positions on it.

"I really thought that this is the 1990s and it's time they recognized domestic partnership," Frayler says. "Police are really conservative. However, police are definitely more human than most people think— when you see the horrible things that befall families every day...

"Cops will stick together and take care of other cops. We'll support Karen 100 percent."

Frayler (who won his race) referred Kolsch to sympathetic lawmakers, but no one took up the cudgel. Meanwhile, Kolsch and Bagielto had begun their other difficult mission: trying to get pregnant. They studied sperm-donor profiles until deciding on the one they wanted. Federal Express delivered the goods to their house in Ronkonkoma and, with the aid of an ovulation kit, they planted the sperm inside Bagielto. But it didn't work. Bagielto wound up having to go to a doctor for infertility treatment. Using in vitro fertilization, she conceived twins and put four fertilized eggs in storage for the future.

At least part of the costly process would have been covered had Kolsch's job afforded domestic partnership benefits. So would have part of the costs of ensuing complications: The babies had to be taken prematurely by Caesarean section, put on life support and kept in the hospital for weeks. One baby, Grace, died before she ever got to go home. However, the health of Jaclyn, though she looks smaller than the average 4-month-old, is improving rapidly.

On the political end, Kolsch found the help she was looking for at a Bay Shore vigil for gay-bashing victim Matthew Shepard last October. After the candlelit march down Main Street, Kolsch heard Tim Sweeney of the Empire State Pride Agenda speak about gay rights and decided to talk to him.

"She said, 'This is who I am, this is what I need. Will you help me out?' " Sweeney says. He recalls that he "had a sense that she would persevere." He organized a meeting with lawyer Paula Ettelbrick and Suffolk Legislator Maxine Postal (D-Amityville), and they put together a package for lawmakers. Shortly before her partner was to give birth, Kolsch broke away from the hospital to testify at a hearing. So did other gay county employees. They won Guldi over.

"It was very, very simple," Guldi says. "This is not about anything but equal pay for equal work." The bill still faces big hurdles, but Kolsch and Bagielto are upbeat.

"I think Karen really believed strongly in something," says Bagielto. "So people have no choice but to support you when you can convey it so strongly."

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