June 2, 1996 in Nation/World

Gays Married Until Laws Do Them Part Gay, Lesbian Couples Face Tough Time In Idaho

David Foster Associated Press
 

One cooks, the other mows the lawn. One does the laundry, the other pays the bills. They have a house on a quiet street, a joint account at the bank and wedding rings on their hands.

Yet there’s no mistaking Debbie Graham and Teresa Wood for just another married couple in the suburbs. They lack one essential piece of paper - a marriage license.

Anywhere in America, and emphatically so in Idaho, people of the same sex cannot legally marry.

Not yet, anyway. And maybe never. But the mere prospect that gay marriage may be forced on states by a Hawaii court case has swept Graham and Wood, along with Congress and 34 state legislatures, into this year’s hottest gay-rights debate.

Would it diminish the sanctity of marriage to let gays and lesbians marry? Or does preventing them from marrying violate their civil rights?

While politicians ponder the big questions, Wood and Graham live the details, discovering they’re denied many entitlements that legally married couples take for granted.

They cannot file a joint tax return. One cannot join the other’s health-insurance plan or get pension benefits. Even if they live together the rest of their lives, in the eyes of the law their relationship will more resemble that of perfect strangers than that of spouses.

“Teresa and I have a very deep commitment to each other,” Graham says. “Society doesn’t recognize that. We’ve tried to protect our relationship the best we can, but we don’t even begin to approximate what a marriage license does automatically.”

Today’s debate over gay marriage arose from a 1993 ruling by the Hawaii Supreme Court in a suit brought by three same-sex couples. They said the state’s refusal to grant them marriage licenses violated the sex-discrimination clause in the state constitution.

The court returned the case to a lower court, saying Hawaii officials must prove a “compelling government interest” if they are to bar same-sex marriages.

That trial won’t start until September, and a final Hawaii Supreme Court ruling may be two years away, but conservative legislators in other states have been bracing for it since last year.

They worry that their own states may have to honor gay marriages performed in Hawaii because of the U.S. Constitution’s “full faith and credit” clause, which requires states to honor other states’ laws.

Bills denying legal recognition to same-sex marriages have been introduced in 34 states. Proposals have been defeated or withdrawn in 16 states, are pending in seven and have been approved in 11 - Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Utah.

In Congress, a new bill would keep same-sex marriage from becoming legal under federal law and would authorize states to reject gay marriages performed in other states.

President Clinton says he would sign the Republican-sponsored legislation, despite his belief that Republican leaders are using it as an election-year ploy to stir up anti-gay sentiment.

Even the federal legislation, if passed, would not prevent constitutional challenges from gay-rights activists, who say they’re encouraged by a recent Supreme Court ruling knocking down a Colorado anti-gay amendment.

But the prospect of a long legal battle does not deter opponents of gay marriage.

“I don’t want to discriminate against gay people,” says Idaho House Speaker Michael Simpson, a Republican. “Neither do I think the state has to recognize and give legal sanction to what they’re doing.”

Idaho’s heavily Republican Legislature passed its gay-marriage ban so overwhelmingly - 59-6 in the House, 28-4 in the Senate - that opponents of the ban were happy just to get a chance to debate the measure.

Simpson says allowing homosexuals to marry would open the door to a host of unsavory unions:

“If a father wants to marry his daughter, why not let them? If four guys or four women all want to get married, why not let them?. To me, marriage is something more than that. People say you can’t legislate morality, but that’s what you do every day.”

What Graham and Wood do every day is try to coexist with Idaho’s conventions of morality, which bounce between the state’s live-and-let-live tradition and a wide conservative streak that sees homosexuality as sinful.

At home, Wood and Graham hug freely and clink their wedding rings together, playfully chanting “We got rings, we got rings.” In public, they dare not walk down the street holding hands.

Idaho is not the easiest place to be gay, and the women, both born and raised here, have developed their own strategies for coping.

Graham, 40, is the romantic, a boisterous risk-taker who drops her partner’s name into conversations with new acquaintances. “If they’re going to reject me for being a lesbian, then I don’t have time for them, and I’d like to know from the start,” she says.

Wood is quieter and more cautious. Also 40, she has worked at the same large Boise corporation for 19 years, most recently as a computer-system analyst, and many co-workers don’t know she is gay.

Three summers ago, surrounded by 80 friends and relatives, the women exchanged rings at a picnic area in the mountains north of Boise.

Society smiles upon such couplings between a man and a woman, bestowing legal and economic privileges in the name of family values. Wood and Graham, meanwhile, find only obstacles.

If one were comatose in the hospital, the other could be denied visitation rights. Both women are estranged from their fathers, and both worry that one of the fathers might show up at the hospital, asserting his legal status as next of kin and demanding that his daughter’s partner leave.

Last spring, as Graham finished her college degree in computer science, she didn’t know whether she’d be able to get health insurance because of a pre-existing condition, a lupus-like illness.

She ultimately found a job and got insurance there. But if she and Wood had been legally married, she wouldn’t have had to worry. She could have joined Wood’s corporate health plan.

Wood paid an attorney $600 to set up a will and living trust naming Graham as prime beneficiary and successor-trustee - a step not needed by married couples.

If Wood or Graham died, the other could not collect Social Security or pension benefits as a surviving spouse. Wood’s employers might not even allow her time off from work if Graham died. Company policy allows bereavement leave only for family members.

“Perhaps I would have a compassionate boss, if I dared tell him,” Wood says, imagining the conversation: “My roommate died.”

“So? We need you on this project.”

Beyond the legal and economic benefits of marriage, Wood and Graham long for the social blessing extended to heterosexual couples.

“If gay marriage were legalized, that implies social acceptance of it,” Graham says.

“I don’t think it would cause anyone to become homosexual, but it might allow people more comfort in being who they are,” Wood says.

“Which can only be healthy,” Graham adds.

Dennis Mansfield disagrees. He is executive director of the Idaho Family Forum, a conservative Christian group active in state politics, and he believes homosexuality breaks God’s law.

“The behavior is so aberrant, just saying it’s OK doesn’t make it so,” he says. “Marriage was defined by God, not by man. It was established before the laws were established to change our own life and times.” Wood and Graham don’t expect religious conservatives ever to accept them.

“They damn us because they say we’re promiscuous. Then they damn us because we want to get married,” Graham says. “What they really want is for us not to exist.”

Despite society’s lack of acceptance, Graham and Wood say their marriage is real to them.

Wood holds up her hand and tugs at her wedding ring.

“I tore my knuckle putting it on. It won’t come off,” she says, then smiles at the thought.

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