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Clifton Spires is the father of a gay son who walked out of the family home in 1996 after a family row and they've never seen or spoken to each other since. A journalist living in Ohio with his wife and other son he now campaigns vigorously for gay rights and each week on OutUK he reflects on how this affects his life and family. Though it's written in America, we believe the issues he deals with affect the worldwide gay community. Previous columns are archived in OutBack.

Name Your Domestic Partnership

In addition to my two sons, Rick and Jonathan --- whom I've written quite a bit about during the past year, I also have two nephews, Sam and James, with whom I have a close relationship --- not quite that of a father and sons, but certainly lots closer than just an uncle and nephews.

Sam and James are twins who just turned 28 last month. They are responsible, hard-working men who bring much joy into the lives of their widowed mother --- my sister Julia --- and my wife Joy and me.

Part of the joy comes from their choices of life mates --- James, a U.S. Army sergeant, is married to Danette, a tall and creative woman with the spirit of a gypsy and the inner strength of a mother lion, which is good, because they are the parents of two beautiful and high-spirited little girls, Dana and Cordelia.

Sam, a college student and office worker, shares his life with Crista, a forward-thinking woman of principles who alternately delights and aggravates the rest of our family with soapbox pontifications on social issues dear to her. Her topics are as far ranging as feminism, gay rights, ecology, politically correct language and vegetarianism.

Sam and Crista are not married in the traditional sense --- they were hand-fasted in July 1999 in a pagan ceremony which linked them together "as long as love shall last." Love seems to be lasting very well for them, for they are still together and still as affectionate and loving toward each other as two cuddly puppies.

My nephew and his companion are domestic partners --- a heterosexual union full of deep commitment toward each other and formally linked in a spiritually-based ceremony. They are not legally married, however, because they feel they do not need a piece of paper to define their relationship.

The lack of paperwork is a problem, however. In the eyes of the law, Sam and Crista are not a legitimate couple. Since their hand-fasting. Sam has lost both of his grandmothers and took time from work to attend their funerals. As his partner and as a member of his family, Crista wanted to be with Sam. She was able to do so, but not without going through some hassle at work because she "isn't really married" to Sam --- apparently only a Judeo-Christian ceremony and that Piece of Paper from the State are the only things recognized by some employers as a legitimate domestic partnership.

Let me switch gears for a minute. My mother, Minnie Harder Spires, passed away a couple of months ago. She knew she hadn't much time left and did what she could to make things easier for my sister and me, who inherited her estate. Mother and Sis became co-signers on Mother's bank account, in case Mother's mental faculties became impaired, which, happily, they did not.

At one point during the past year, Mother and Sis spent several months living together when Mother's ailments --- heart disease, anemia, and being an outrageous old lady --- knocked her off her feet and caused her to have a rapid weight loss. While recuperating, Mother contributed to my sister's household income and did what she could to help with the running of my sister's house. There was love and bickering in their relationship. The house was in my sister's name, but Mother was more than a guest, even if she was just a temporary resident.

Mother recovered enough to return to her own home before she died, but what if she hadn't? Would the two women, both widows, both linked by blood --- have worked it out so they would be equal partners in the household? And if they did, would they have become a domestic partnership?

This fall, my son Jonathan got his first job as a supermarket cashier. He contributed more than half of his income to help out with household expenses. His employer recognized that when his parents shopped where Jonathan worked, the groceries they would buy also were used by Jonathan, and so my wife and I benefited from Jonathan's employee discount.

We became aware that because Jonathan was a financial contributor, it was important to get his input in household decisions since his money was now involved. Our marriage --- a legalized domestic partnership --- suddenly included an 18-year-old junior partner who was entitled to state his opinion.

Sam and Crista, Mother and Sis, Jonathan and his parents --- can anyone say that these domestic partnerships are not legitimate relationships? Likewise, so are those of many other people in other living arrangements --- let's say, two men or two women, linked only by love. They could be father and son or mother and daughter; two brothers or two sisters; a grandparent and a grandchild; or maybe two people of the same sex without blood relationships whose sole link is their loving commitment to each other.

Whoa! What's that, I hear you say? You can;t allow same-sex couples to be considered domestic partners. That's for FAMILIES, Cliftonio. You know, people who are linked by blood or who have a God-sanctioned marriage which allows them to have sex.

Actually, in many cases, people who are linked by blood are not regarded as domestic partners. Years ago, when our son Rick was a young adult, my wife and I would have given anything to claim him as a dependent so he could benefit from my health insurance. Not allowed. He was over 18. Likewise, my son Jonathan, who received no health insurance from his employer, is no longer eligible for either parents' health insurance plan, because he, too, is over 18.

I honestly don't know whether either my nephew or his partner work for employers with health plans that cover domestic partners. I believe that if they worked for the state of Ohio, such coverage probably wouldn't be available.

In the case of my mother and my sister, what if either of them were struck by a major illness that exhausted the coverage of their individual health plans? It's also unlikely that either could be included under the other's health plan to provide additional coverage.

So tell us something we don't know already, you poor babies, I hear my gay and gay-supportive friends say. This how most gay partners live. Gay people are at the bottom of the list when it comes to including domestic partners and always will be --- your spinster Aunt May and her pet chihuahua will be on each other's health insurance polices before Adam and Steve or Madam and Eve.

My point is that the health issue of who's covered and who isn't is really a civil rights issue that goes beyond the exclusion of just gay folks, even though they are primary targets of the discrimination. Why should insurance companies, employers and all levels of government be allowed to define, in such a narrow manner, what a domestic partnership is? There are plenty of people out there --- parents and children, devoted lovers and friends and many, many other combinations --- who deserve the right to share in each other's benefits, funeral and paternity leave, lives, you name it. Their commitment to each other clearly meets the definition of "partnership," domestic or legal, and their mutual love gives them the right to call themselves "family."

The passage of laws widening the definition of domestic partnerships and fighting so-called "defense of marriage acts," which would limit the definition of marriage and families, are more than just civil rights issues --- they are issues for parents and children, siblings, friends and all people who love each other.

Published 23rd December 2000


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