State of the Unions


The woman at the counter wants us to find our own pen. She won’t lend one of hers, she says, because people run off with them.

All morning, my soon-to-be lawfully registered partner and I have been dragging through the corridors of New York’s City Hall, trying to sign up for what passes as same-sex marriage here. No one will remember this moment except for us. No one will photograph it, no one will try to sell us a bouquet on the sidewalk. Not for us the embarrassed optimism of standing in Sunday best before the clerk and being pronounced as one.

No, we stand here, in the dankest of basements, in what amounts to a municipal outbuilding, fumbling through a backpack for a pen. A few swipes of the Bic later and we’ve got what gay couples fought hard for and finally got in this town: the right to visit each other at public hospitals — and Rikers Island. The right to demand a family discount or inherit a lease. The right to share our health insurance, provided we remain employed at companies that have domestic-partner benefits.

Later, when the taxes for that health coverage come due — if you’re not married, it’s counted as income — friends and colleagues will look at us with great surprise. “You have to pay taxes for that?” they’ll say. “There’s nothing you can do?” Nothing but write the checks, this year alone totaling over $3,000, and grit our teeth each Christmas when the IRS culls another $500 or so for unemployment and Social Security taxes. Never mind that my partner would get nothing, nothing, from Social Security if I died.

Arthur Leonard, a professor at New York Law School and the editor of Lesbian/Gay Law Notes, argues that this city’s provisions are unusually rich. Presently, you get some protection in burgs from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, but in many instances the benefits are guaranteed only to municipal employees. Partners in New York City receive dozens of rights, nearly the full range a municipality can offer.

So have Leonard and his partner of more than 20 years registered? Nope. They each get health insurance through their jobs, he says, and “we can’t imagine either of us winding up in jail.”

Still, marriage matters, if only because a piece of paper, any piece of paper, can make it possible to pick a kid up from school or get a family membership at a gym. And most everywhere these days, if you look hard enough, you can find someone who’ll perform an extralegal marriage ceremony for you or trumpet your partnership or register you like a family pet. In Vermont, you can almost get married. A civil union there carries no authority outside the state, but inside you can give your partner health insurance and at least not have the state tax it. In California, which along with Hawaii has the only other statewide registry, benefits are steadily expanding.

Or you can go freelance. On Valentine’s Day, the Affirmations Lesbian/Gay Community Center — location: Ferndale, Michigan — started its own registry. For $25 and a notarized signature, they’ll send you and your sweetie a certificate. That and a Supreme Court ruling would make you full citizens.