Fight & Flight for Our Families

While at the Rainbow Families/DC holiday party yesterday, I heard a bit about Barbara Kinney and Tibby Middleton — a senior lesbian couple who fled their home of 17 years in Fredericksburg, VA for Frederick, MD after Virginia’s lawmakers rose up against families like theirs. After 30 years together, they weathered being lesbians in Utah, parenthood, a cross-country move, being kept apart when one was in the hospital because visits were for “family only,” and wondering what would happen to them after one had a brain aneurysm.

But when Virginia moved to not only outlaw same-sex marriage, or anything that looks like it, Kinney and Middleton said goodbye to friends of 30 years, and moved out of the state.

Barbara and Tibby were watching television in their living room rocking chairs in the summer of 2004 when they heard the news they’d been dreading for months. A new law in Virginia had taken effect, called the Affirmation of Marriage Act. It declared that couples like them were not entitled to any of the benefits or protections that straight, married couples got.

They had been hearing about the law, part of a national backlash against gay marriages in California and Massachusetts, for several months. For Barbara and Tibby, the legal language it used was scary: A civil union, partnership contract or other arrangement between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage is prohibited and such an arrangement entered into in another state or jurisdiction is void in Virginia and any contractual rights created thereby are void and unenforceable.

… “I would eschew the word ‘safe’ for the moment,” says Edward D. Barnes, founder of Virginia’s largest family law practice and former head of the Virginia Bar Association’s family law section. Contracts such as wills and medical directives aren’t really marital documents, he says, and, therefore, the law doesn’t appear to be aimed at them. But because the law hasn’t been tested in court, he is advising his gay clients to craft paperwork that plays down any romantic connection to their partners — the opposite of what he told them before the new law passed. For now, he says, gays and lesbians need to seek out expert legal help and pray that their documents can withstand any potential legal challenge. “Since there’s been no interpretation of this law, no one could give an ironclad” guarantee that wills and medical directives won’t be affected, he says. [emphasis added]

At this stage of their lives, Barbara and Tibby can’t afford to be a test case. All that matters to them is being able to know, 100 percent for sure, that they will be together until the very end. They already know what it is like to be kept apart. Tibby still reflexively puts her right hand on her heart when she describes being barred from Barbara’s recovery room at Alexandria’s now-closed Circle Terrace Hospital, where Barbara had a hysterectomy in 1984. “Family only,” the nurses said, quoting hospital policy. Then, as now, the law did not entitle Tibby to be with Barbara.

“I could see her being wheeled in there, and it just pulled at my heart, to have her alone in there,” Tibby says. She stalked the waiting room until shifts changed and returned to the nurse’s station with a new identity — Barbara’s sister.

There’s so much more to their story — of the decades spent building a life together and and looking for some kind of home — I can’t do justice to it here. If I tried to choose another passage to quote, I’d end up posting the whole thing. So I can only urge people to read the whole article. Whatever the theories are about Virginia’s law, and others like it, given what Barbara and Tibby have been through together and mean to each other can anyone blame them for not wanting to be a test case? After all, people sometimes fail tests, and in this case the stakes are as high as their whole life together come down to it’s final moments.

I will quote a couple more bits, however, because I can’t resist making one particular point. If you read the whole article, you’ll note that the Washington Post preserves its objectivity by devoting part of the article to interviewing a woman who’s one of the footsoldiers in Virginia’s fight against gay families.

[Patricia Phillips] says she considered the Affirmation of Marriage Act so uncontroversial that she didn’t even focus on lobbying for it last year. Its logic seems obvious to her: Virginia was simply affirming that it does not recognize same-sex marriage, whether that takes the form of a “civil union” or some contract purporting to mirror that.

The Affirmation of Marriage Act isn’t a hate law, she says, and it isn’t meant to invalidate documents such as wills and medical directives.

… Gay marriage, she argues, separates the institution from its original purpose: having children. And in doing so, it further weakens the traditional family unit, which she believes is so fundamental to the country’s social and economic fabric.

“Women are economically disadvantaged when they are single mothers,” Phillips says. “Men don’t live as long when they are divorced. There are tremendous repercussions. Marriage isn’t just a recognition of personal affection, it’s a lot more than that . . . it impacts the whole social structure.” [emphasis added]

I won’t even get into the issue of Phillips and others like her disavowing hatred, as I’ve covered that ground before, and haven’t much changed my position. Meanwhile she rattles off some of the intangible benefits of marriage, alleviating economic disadvantages for women and longer life for men, and the implication is that she’d deny same-sex couples those benefits too. Same0sex couples experience economic disadvantages — from inheritance to taxes and social security — due to a lack of rights and protections. Barbara and Tibby’s story is a prime example of how the lack of protections in the event of illness alone results in stress that doesn’t contribute to good health or long life. Add to that the fact that most people holding Phillips’ position never get around to saying just what protections our families should have or how those rights and protections should be obtained, and I think that pretty much sums it up.

It occurrs to me, also, that there are a couple of contradictions in her argument that are too easily glossed over, conveniently enough that other Virginians who find Barbara and Tibby an immediate threat to their families can in good conscience opt in on Phillips’ declaration of non-hatred. In one breath she praises that legislation’s prohibition against any “contract purporting to mirror” marriage, and in the next theoretically exempts wills and medical powers of attorney from that prohibition.

I’m no lawyer, and neither is Phillips for that matter, but it seems to me that both wills and medical powers of attorney “mirror” some pretty important rights and protections of marriage. While Phillps appears to wave it away, even the Virginia Bar’s top lawyer on family doesn’t have a definite answer on how the law will affect such arrangements. In fact, the only people who seem to be certain about what the law will or will not do are it’s backers. What happens to gay families who become test cases for the law will depend on who’s on the bench that day and what they believe, much as Tibby discovered that whether she could be with her spouse or not depended mostly on who was in charge of the nurses’ desk and what they believed. In short, in court or in the hospital waiting room, the uncertainty leave gay families in Virginia at the mercy of the Patricia Phillips of the world.

Again, can you blame anyone for not sticking around to see what happens? Is it worth it to “wait and see” what happens when a family faces death, illness, other difficulties, when it may also mean waiting until it’s too late?

As sad as Barbara and Tibby’s story is — it’s always sad when the twin specters of hatred and discrimination drive a family from their and their community — it may actually be a happy ending in the context of today’s political realities; that’s even considering they’ve moved to a state (where I also live) in which the governor vetoed bills granting protections to same sex couples followed by weak (and thus far unfulfilled) promises to introduce his own bill to address those protections. After all, Barbara and Tibby are not Laurel Hester and Stacey Andree. Barbara and Tibby just bought a new home together, but after Laurel dies of lung cancer Stacey will likely lose the home they’ve shared. Barbara and Tibby aren’t Rene Price and Betty Jordan, the latter of whom had to go to court to keep what was left of their life together following Price’s death. Both cases, by the way, happened in a state that pulled the teeth from its domestic partnership statute, to further placate people like Patricia Phillips.

It’s a happy ending for our times — perhaps the happiest currently possible — because Betty and Tibby saw the writing on the wall in time enough to flee to a state where their rights and protections are somewhat less uncertain than in Virginia, and before they once again needed those protections and got the chance to sample the kind of compassionate conservatism being dished out to Laurel Hester and Stacey Andree right now.

For they time being, they escaped. They “voted with their feet,” as proponents of making marriage a “state issue” (marriage for gays, that is, not for heterosexuals) are fond of saying. But with same-sex marriage amendments popping up in other states, most recently Texas and Wisconsin, other laws with uncertain outcomes like the one in Michigan and another in Oklahoma, and more almost certain to follow, how long is it before there are few if any places left for our families to flee when fighting means almost certain defeat in a “winner take all” game?

Heterosexual couples will continue to have their marital rights and protections follow them wherever they go in this great country. The best case scenario for our families — for the foreseeable future — seems to be that what rights and protections we do manage to secure may drift in and out of existence every time we cross state lines. Even if you have your papers with you — in terms of wills and medical powers of attorney — you may be out of luck, depending on where you are, and on who’s on the bench or at the nurse’s desk that day, as well as what they believe.

And if they chose to keep a gay man from his dying partner, gay parents from their injured child, or essentially allow a widowed lesbian to lose the home she’s shared with her partner, there are places where the law will stand behind them. And as more states take that same — and often ill-defined — stand, the option to “vote with your feet” may narrow into meaninglessness, if not non-existence.

Still, if you can escape and establish a home-front until or if the legislative march on our families catches up with you, then you’ve got a happy ending, all things considered. For now, at least. In what still remains Dubya’s America, that seems to be our best case scenario for the duration.

About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
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5 Responses to Fight & Flight for Our Families

  1. trey says:

    Interesting, we were just joking of the ‘refugees’ at a Mamas and Papas (gay parent group).

    We keep noticing new GLBT families, more than we remember from any year since we moved here in 1997, even than last year, families from Ohio, Utah, Georgia.

    Maybe it’s perception, definitely anecdotal, but it does seem that more and more gay families (and individuals) are fleeing the deep crimson red states as they pass more and more hostile laws.

    Part of me wish they wouldn’t, that’d they stay and make the state better…. but I know I would leave.. so I understand completely why they do.

  2. Terrance says:

    True. Given the possible consequences of staying, I can’t blame anyone for pulling up stakes. If the other option means possibly losing a home or being separated from a loved-one in their last moments, I can’t blame anyone for not taking that chance if they don’t have to.

    However, there’s something else worth remember, which occured to me when the story got sent around on an email listserve for GLBT people of color here in Maryland. For every family of "refugees" that had the resources to move to relatively friendlier horizons, there are several families who don’t have the resources to move; unprotected and unable to go anywhere. So, what happens to them?

  3. Julia says:

    <i>
    For every family of "refugees" that had the resources to move to relatively friendlier horizons, there are several families who don’t have the resources to move; unprotected and unable to go anywhere. So, what happens to them? </i>

    They get screwed, of course.  That’s the conservative American way.

  4. aj says:

    Hi,

    Been following and reading your blog almost religiously.  Can i just say how thankful i am living in Canada as a gay man?   I cannot imagine the fear that some may have as a result of laws such as this being enacted.   Although I cannot speak for all gays in Canada, I can say that my fear is having a new federal government that wants to revisit the Same Sex Marriage Act (we have an election in January) and thereby complicate things legally here.  

    I just want to say that I hope that no one forgets that although battles may be lost, it is just a temporary set back.   The war for equal rights will be won through the strength of one individual and one community.   

  5. Bacchus2530 says:

    While we aren’t refugees from Ohio, as we moved away from there years before they enacted these hateful laws. These laws now keep us from moving back and potentially even from visiting once we have a child. As in Virginia these laws have not been tested and as widely written as the Ohio law is it very possibly could affect a 2 parent adoption.

    It is sad to not be able to return home, whether you want to or not.

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