Terrance Heath

Strengthening Families

Filed By Terrance Heath | August 07, 2007 12:54 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Democrats, marriage, Patrick Atkins, Terri Schiavo

Some families. Some of the time. If you wonder why I questioned Nancy Pelosi on whether the Democrats' agenda item to "strengthen families" meant our families too, I invite you to read the story of Brett Conrad and Patrick Atkins. If I weren't already in the middle of one Wikipedia project, I'd start documenting stories like this one on Wikipedia as well. I still might, because these stories need to be easier for people to find too.

Brett Conrad spent more than half his life as Patrick Atkins' partner. For 25 years, the men shared bank accounts, apartments and eventually a home in Fishers.

But when Atkins, 47, fell seriously ill in 2005, Conrad faced what many gay Hoosiers consider a travesty: no law guaranteeing them the same rights as married couples to participate in care decisions for their ill partners.

Conrad, 47, spent much of the past two years trying to win guardianship of Atkins from Atkins' parents, Thomas and Jeanne of Carmel. Jeanne Atkins is quoted in court documents as saying she believes homosexuality is a sin and that she disapproves of the men's relationship. The parents have barred Conrad from visiting their now-disabled son in their home where he lives.

In June, Conrad won visitation rights from the Indiana Court of Appeals, but the court upheld an earlier Hamilton County ruling that left control of Atkins' care to his parents.

It gets better. Conrad has to live with the reality that the man he loves is left to the tender loving care of a mother who says stuff like this.

Jeanne Atkins testified at trial that it was "probably true" she would not let the men see each other unless required by law.



The record also shows that she told Conrad that if her son was going to return to life with his partner after recovering from his stroke, she would prefer he not recover at all.

In many ways, this is Sharon Kowalski all over again.

Kowalski and Thompson first met in 1976 at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota when Kowalski enrolled in two physical education classes that Thompson taught there. A year later, they worked together coaching track. Neither woman had previously identified as a lesbian, and their romantic involvement developed slowly.



In 1983, they had been together for four years and had had a commitment ceremony, when, on November 3, a drunk driver hit the car in which Kowalski was driving with her niece. Her niece was killed, and Kowalski was left first comatose, then severely disabled from a head injury.



When Thompson told Kowalski's family, who lived in a very conservative part of northern Minnesota, that she and Sharon had been lovers, they reacted harshly and resolutely. In July 1985, Donald Kowalski, Sharon's father, acquired legal guardianship of his 27-year- old daughter without even a court hearing, then moved her to a nursing home almost 200 miles from her home with Thompson. He then left orders forbidding Thompson to see her lover, even though she had been working successfully to help Sharon regain some of her lost abilities.



Though Kowalski continually typed out messages (the only way she could communicate after the accident) saying she wished to live with Thompson, her parents and the court considered her incompetent to decide her own future.



Determined that her lover would not be left alone and poorly cared for in an institution, Thompson began a lengthy battle to bring Kowalski home. Her case cost over $300,000 in legal fees, which she raised by speaking around the country at gay pride rallies and other events, not only to tell her own story, but also to raise awareness about the need for legal protection for gay and lesbian relationships.

That was in 1983. Karen Thomspon and Sharon Kowalski won their fight in 1991, when the Minnesota Court of Appeals named Thomspon and Kowalski's guardian.

But it appears we right back 1983 again. And that's why I thought it was important to question Nancy Pelosi. Name one "serious" Democratic candidate for the White House who has proposed anything that will help couples like Conrad and Atkins, or couples like Laurel Hester and Stacey Andree, or couples like Bobbi and Sandi Cote-Whitacre, or couples like Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond, or couples like Michael Tartaglia and John Crisci, or couples like Bill Flanigan and Robert Daniel, our couples like Sam Beaumont and his partner, our couples like Robert Scanlon and Jay Baker, or families like the Otteman-Rangel family.

And, while there are legal documents wills, medical powers of attorney, advance directives, etc that Conrad and Atkins could have had drawn up, it's naive to assume they would have sufficed. The several of the stories above underscore that (a) there are no guarantees that those documents will be recognized, and (b) if they are less-than-perfect in the first place any rights they attempted to confer are in validated in a way that doesn't apply to married heterosexuals. Sam Beamont's story, for example, is the result of an improperly witness will, which wouldn't have had the same effect on a legal spouse; who would have had a automatic right to inherit at least part of a deceased spouse's estate even in the absence of a will.

There's also the lesson from Terri Schiavo's case.

I've read over and over again that Terri Schiavo's parents have been through nearly 30 court hearings, appeals, and judgements, all of which went in Michael Schiavo's favor. That means that 30 times, the courts found for Michael Schiavo, at least in part, because he is Terri Schiavo's legal spouse. As her husband, he has the right to not just be involved in decisions about her medical care, but to make those decisions in her best interests if she cannot make them herself. All because they stood in front of a minister or a justice o' the peace and said "I do," and the state issued them a license.

Like any other married couple the legal documents above, while the legal documents above would have helped, they weren't absolutely necessary because they involve rights that are conferred the a marriage license is issued and a couple says "I do." For the incredibly low price of a marriage license, they walk bak up the aisle with some 1,000+ federal benefits and protections, while same-sex couples pay a lot more for a lot less.

Let's break this down or itemize it a little bit. In 1997, the GAO reported 1,049 federal benefits, rights and privileges that are contingent on marital status, including things like water and mineral rights, intellectual property rights (widows and widowers can get renewal rights on copyrighted works), hunting licenses. (I keep a copy of the report on my desk.) Now, if you forgo the wedding and just get married, in Denton County, Texas you'll be paying about $0.04 per marriage-based federal benefit/protection.



As I wrote earlier, a marriage license where I live is $55. So we?re talking about $0.05 per federal benefit/protection. And that?s not even counting state-based benefits and protections.





...Here in Maryland, one couple I wrote about previously (and who are also plaintiffs in the marriage case before the state Court of Appeals) spent considerably more than $55 to protect their family.




The plaintiffs represent longtime committed couples from throughout Maryland, including an older gay couple who say that without marriage, they cannot be guaranteed the right to make medical decisions for each other.



Another couple, Lisa Kebreau, 38, and Mikkole Mozelle, 30, say they have spent nearly $6,000 on legal documents, including medical directives and reciprocal powers of attorney, to ensure that their children are protected if one of them were to fall ill or die.



"That's a little scary," Kebreau said. "Since there is no established legal relationship, then technically my partner would be a stranger to the child she helped conceive."


... If you itemize that out, Kebreau and Mozelle payed about $1,500 per legal protection. That's if you throw in parental rights regarding their children. Take that out and it's about $2,000 per. It probably took longer than the standard 3 day waiting period for a marriage license. So, like I said before:



By contrast Kebreau and Mozelle spent something like 109 times the cost of a marriage license, for legal documents that get them a tenuous hold on maybe three of the 1000+ benefits and protections of marriage, and the process of drawing up their documents probably took more than three days. And even then there's no guarantee those documents will be recognized or honored when presented at the hospital, as happened to Bill Flanigan. And the few rights you may secure at a much higher price, you must leave at the state line if you so much as take an overnight trip or a vacation, because you can't take them with you. So, if you're gay, you pay more, wait longer, and get less. And what you get may turn out to be nothing, but you won't know that until you really need it. Nevermind that some states have tried to nullify even those few meager, shaky legal protections. Meanwhile, you keep contributing to Social Security, pensions, and health insurance your partner can't share or inherit; basically subsidizing heterosexuals who do get all the rights and protections of marriage, at a discount compared to what the "gay tax" gets you.

Name anything that Democrats on a national level have done that would strengthen these families and deal with the specific challenges they face as LGBT families who are not recognized as families. And,yes, passing ENDA and the hate crimes bill would be huge victories. But what would they do to help any of the families above, or any LGBT families in the same situation.

My point is that while we wait for whatever it is we're waiting for, the things that happened to these families are going to continue to happen, and with little or no remedies or even the possibility of legal recourse. So, either that's acceptable or it's not. And if it's not, then it's worth asking what's going to be done about it.

Otherwise we're asking people to continue to live with injustice without remedy, and to do so indefinitely.

And don't tell me about anybody's verbal support for civil unions, because there's increasing evidence that civil unions aren't enough.

As of right now, five months after New Jersey's Civil Union Law took effect, at least 1 out of every 7 civil-union couples in New Jersey are not getting their civil unions recognized by their employers.



One out of 7 is 14 percent.



If 14 percent of married couples in New Jersey were being denied full, legally-guaranteed marriage benefits by their employers, there'd be outraged stories on every news source in the region, and quite possibly rioting in the streets.



And actually, it's probably more than 1 out of 7. The 1 out of 7 figure comes from 191 complaints reported to Garden State Equality (out of 1,359 civil-union couples) -- and chances are excellent that not everyone who's having problems is reporting it. And before you ask -- no it's not just one big bad company that's skewing the results. According to Garden State Equality, the 191 cases involve close to 191 companies.



So civil unions aren't just legally unequal to marriage; they're not just emotionally unequal; they're not even just morally unequal. They're unequal in the most literal, practical sense of the word. Even in the state where the civil union is the law, people in civil unions are not being treated the same by their employers as people who are married.

And while tend to applaud Democrats who dodge the whole question by saying it should be left to the states, there's a significant argument for a federal solution, since the problem with civil unions is partially a federal problem.

Most vexing for gay couples in New Jersey is that they have little legal recourse. Smaller companies that buy private health insurance plans for their employees are compelled to offer them to same-sex couples under the state's civil union laws. But most legal experts agree that federal regulations give companies with self-funded insurance plans -- a group covering 55 percent of the country 105 million working-age employees -- the power to ignore state laws regarding corporate benefits.



And when companies choose to follow federal laws, they often cite the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and woman as a reason to deny coverage to same-sex couples. New Jersey officials estimate that almost 90 percent of the reports of noncompliance to date have been linked to companies covered by these federal laws.



"If a company believes it is covered by federal law, our answer when we are asked whether they have to provide coverage to civil union couples is "we don't know yet,' " said J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo, director of the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights. "It's a lawyer's answer that people don't want to hear, but we're talking about uncharted territory because the law is just not clear on this."

DOMA, again. That's one reason I regretted not being able to attend YearlyKos this year. I would love to have gotten a chance to question some of the candidates on issues related to our families. Fortunately, there were people there who did just that, and took Hillary Clinton to task over DOMA. [Via Queerty.]

A San Francisco blogger made that painfully clear to Sen. Clinton during the Yearly Kos Convention of liberal bloggers this weekend, when he asked whether she would support or repeal four major pieces of legislation enacted during the Clinton administration - the Defense of Marriage Act, the Telecommunications Act, the North American Free Trade Agreement and welfare reform.



... The Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal recognition of same-sex marriages and gave states the right to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages, "served a very important purpose," she told the blogger. The law staved off Republican efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage, Clinton said, an argument that seems to consign her husband's support of the law to the "necessary evil" category.



It also assumes the voters will buy the assumption that Republicans had the political might to change the Constitution, a Herculean task.



Clinton said she would favor repeal of a provision of the act that theoretically could endanger the federal benefits of gay couples.

Theoretically. Talk to the people in New Jersey about the "theoretical" endangerment of their benefits. And why repeal a provision of the bill? Why not repeal the whole thing, if you're serious about strengthening our families along with everyone else's, that is.

Hillary can play matchmaker for her gay friends all she likes. It's great for those gay individuals close to her that she's that personally interested in their happiness. She can even dance at their weddings. (If it's not an election year, or she can't seek another term, and provided there are no cameras or press present.) But when they walk back up the aisle they're aren't going to have the same rights and protections as Bill and Hillary. They aren't even going to have many more benefits and protections than they did on their way down the aisle. Maybe none.

And while they may be as married as they can be in the state where they tie the knot -- like Massachusetts and possibly Vermont -- their legal relationship will fade in and out of existence (mostly out) as they cross state lines. They might not even be married in San Francisco, depending on how the marriage fight in California goes. That's funny, considering that a the city's "gay zip codes" are gay dollar goldmines for Clinton.

And the rest of the Democratic field is busy gathering gay dollars too. So, while the folks at Politico seem to think the Democrats are "embracing" gay issues, there aren't a lot of specifics.

The party's leading presidential candidates will gather in Los Angeles on Aug. 9 for a forum sponsored by the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign and broadcast live on the gay cable channel Logo.



They're expected to reiterate their universal commitments to a broad range of gay rights in areas ranging from health care to immigration -- a substantive package that amounts to virtually everything short of the word "marriage."

Commitments to do what? Have they made any commitments today? Have It would be great to hear them talk about concrete actions they will take in their potential administrations, and real strategies for helping our families surmount challenges like the ones described above. But to day, there are some questions about just how serious their support on gay issues really is.

But for all her gay support, what has Clinton really done for gay rights? Not much, some gay activists say, but neither has Obama or Edwards. In the six and a half years since the Clintons left the White House, the landscape has altered dramatically for gays. Same-sex couples have the legal right to marry in one state and the right to civil unions or domestic partnerships in three others, with several other states contemplating extending partnership rights. And yet the Democratic front runners' positions on major gay issues, for repealing "Don't ask, don't tell," for a federal ban on employment discrimination, for domestic partnerships but against gay marriage, are identical to those taken by Al Gore and Bill Bradley eight years ago. Clinton's campaign points out that, as a senator, she has cosponsored bills that, among other things, sought to extend benefits to the domestic partners of federal employees and provide resources for local prosecution of hate crimes. Still, mindful of their community's financial clout, some activists are telling Clinton and the other candidates that they're tired of happy talk about equality and they want to see results.

Exactly. And the answers we get from the candidates sound anything like the answer I got from the Speaker - which included no answers for couples like Conrad and Atkins, or any of the other families mentioned above - then some gay folks might want to consider sitting on our check-writing hands and holding back potential contributions.

Or at least those of us with partners and spouses might want to forego our would be contributions. After all, we may need the money for legal challenges, or just to make up for the benefits and protections we subsidize heterosexual married couples (including a number of the candidates), but don't get for our families; especially since they've yet to come up with real policies that really strengthen our families.

Why should we be their benefactors if we continue to see no benefit? In the interest of the common good? At some point, shouldn't the common good include us too?

Crossposted from the Republic of T.


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Leland Frances | August 7, 2007 3:20 PM

It's time for LGBT Hoosiers who care to do more than weep and moan amongst themselves about the Conrad/Atkins case to both give back some of the sadistic Mrs. Atkins' generated pain to her AS WELL AS further publicize this case as the perfect example of why legal protection for same gender couples is both moral and necessary.

She has a cheesecake + store at:

11852 Allisonville Rd
Fishers, Indiana
Store Hours
Mon, Fri, Sat 10 am to 5 pm
Tues, Wed, Thur 10 am to 7 PM
Closed Sunday

The weatherman is predicting some great public demonstration weather this Saturday. If I still lived there I would luv to join you all in a picket of her store. Look forward to hearing about it on Bilerico and in the Star.


As for the Presidential election: after the "all or nothing" Naderites helped put George Bush fils in the White House in 2000, and "all or nothing" gays helped return him there in 2004, and all that has resulted in from his demonization of gays to several states setting in concrete gay inequality to thousands of Americans [including forceably closet LGBTs] along with tens of thousands of Iraqis dying needlessly, I foolishly imagined that gays would get realistic for 2008. That they would stop lighting the fires of an ulitmate Pyrrhic victory. But, no, from Matt Foreman at NGLTF to commentators above, rhetoric remains more important to them than any realistic plan for advancing gay rights.