Dana Rudolph

Cheese and Roses

Filed By Dana Rudolph | July 05, 2009 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: domestic partnership, marriage, New Jersey, Wisconsin

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) signed a bill yesterday that allows same-sex couples to register as domestic partners and thus gain certain rights like hospital visitation and survivor benefits. As an erstwhile Cheesehead, who met my now-spouse while we were both graduate students at UW-Madison, this comes as happy news.

Wisconsin is, in fact, the first state to offer such benefits after enacting a constitutional amendment that bans both marriages and civil unions for same-sex couples. Let's review:

  • A domestic partnership in Wisconsin offers limited rights, but civil unions are unconstitutional.
  • In New Jersey, civil unions are the same as domestic partnerships in California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.
  • In California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, domestic partnerships are equivalent to marriages in all but name.
  • New Jersey domestic partnerships are still around, however, for same- or opposite-sex couples over 62 years old, and for those who registered before February 19, 2007. They get an extensive but not marriage-equivalent set of rights and benefits.

Would Wisconsin recognize a California domestic partnership, but not a New Jersey civil union, which is equivalent in all but name? Would they recognize California domestic partnerships of same-sex couples, but not the marriages of the 18,000 couples who wed there before Prop 8 was upheld? That old line about roses doesn't quite seem to hold.

Yes, I know a lawyer could tell me the answers. Point is, though, one would need a lawyer to do so. I'm thinking of inventing a secret decoder ring that translates one's relationship status into whatever it happens to be in that state. Of course, in most states it would still come up blank. One of the most important reasons for marriage equality, in my mind, is simply to avoid the state-to-state problems of terminology and confusion (say, in the case of hospital visitation) that will inevitably occur.

Much as this makes me grumble, though, I do find something satisfying in the fact that a state with constitutional bans like Wisconsin has made as much progress as it has. On, Wisconsin.

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Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | July 5, 2009 11:45 PM

Just to ask Dana, you did not mention Massachusetts. Where would they fit in the decoder ring? I think again the the importance of Federal recognition is everything, thought "domestic partnerships" is probably all that Obama meant.

I agree about federal recognition. I'm a Massachusetts resident myself, married to my spouse. I didn't mention Mass. in the post only because I thought it would be obvious that with a constitutional amendment against marriage of same-sex couples, Wisconsin wouldn't recognize such marriages. I was also just trying to offer a few examples of the complexities, not a comprehensive list.

Every year when I fill out my federal tax forms as "single" or watch another married lesbian couple still have to go through a second-parent adoption in order to protect the non-bio mom's rights out of state, I think about the need for federal recognition. (OK, I think about it more often than that, but especially at those times.) I think that just as important as the recognition, though, is the need for consistent terminology, so that the legal recognition is understood by everyone who must implement it.

As for which term to use, I'll concede that the most likely scenario is for the federal government to use some term other than "marriage." That would still be progress--but for one major reason I think the term "marriage" is important, I'll refer you to my recent guest post at the WaPo On Parenting blog. Briefly, kids learn early from books and movies that marriage is a special state. They may end up feeling like their families are still second-class if their parents don't have the option of marriage. (And evidence from the civil union commissions in Vermont and New Jersey supports this.) They may also gain a very skeptical view of a government that continues to uphold a "separate but equal" policy--and that's not good for building future citizens.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | July 6, 2009 9:52 AM

So you file state taxes as a couple and federal taxes as a single. On it's face it is unfair, discriminatory and certainly involves more costs and inconvenience.

I agree with you completely, except about Wisconsin! It is a pretty state filled with a bunch of jerkwater dummies. If you were only in Madison you would not understand what I mean, but even there, I have never seen a city more difficult to drive through than the state capitol of Wisconsin.