Couple Rides the Road for Lesbians’ Civil Rights

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Carrie Stone and Elisia Ross

(WOMENSENEWS)–Carrie Stone and Elisia Ross are going to celebrate their 50th birthdays by cycling across the country and telling everyone they meet along the way: “Get your ducks in a row!”

They’re referring to the legal documents that can offer some measure of protection to lesbian or gay couples–protection that may not seem necessary until the worst happens.

Ross, a registered nurse, and Stone, an attorney specializing in estate planning, have seen the worst over and over again in their day-to-day work. Ross saw gay partners blocked from their partners’ hospital beds by rules allowing only legal “next of kin.” In her stint as a lawyer representing low-income clients, Stone similar problems in her practice. “They’d come in saying, ‘Help me, I’m not allowed to visit my partner in the hospital. Help me, her mother’s threatening to take the kid,'” Stone says.

As a result of what they witnessed, the couple has “decided to go to the source and put the fire out,” Stone says.

In December 2000, Stone and Ross–who have known one another for nearly a decade and became life partners in 1999–sold their homes, bought a pop-up camper to take their message to their potential audience. They also created an Internet source for their national outreach effort, a Web site, RainbowLaw.com. Based in the upstate New York town of Cheektowaga, the couple has taken the camper to women’s music festivals, gay pride celebrations and private homes where “people have, like, a Tupperware party, but it’s us.” They also created a catchy theme and logo–six ducks painted the colors of the rainbow–and are now finalizing their plans to ride from Florida to California next March.

Sept. 11 Cases Add Momentum to the Movement

Ross and Stone’s project is part of a burgeoning movement that has grown considerably since Sept. 11, when a number of gays and lesbians who lost their partners in that day’s attacks suddenly found themselves having to battle for recognition as their loved ones’ next of kin.

The awareness of the need for legal documents that lay out the rights of the members unmarried couples has been growing “for a while,” says Courtney Joslin of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. The high-profile cases emerging from the Sept. 11 attacks, such as those of Peggy Neff, whose partner was killed in the Pentagon crash, and Keith Bradkowski and Nancy Walsh, whose partners were on the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, have raised the issue more clearly, both for same-sex couples and the general public.

“I think it was a wake-up call, especially with the additional monies involved. There was more hanging on it than a simple will,” says Joslin.

Other high-profile cases have spotlighted the need for documents in areas other than inheritance rights. Back in 1983, Karen Thompson began an eight-year court battle for guardianship of her partner, Sharon Kowalski. A drunk driver had slammed into Kowalski’s car, leaving her quadriplegic and brain-damaged. Kowalski’s parents denied any access to Thompson, who co-owned a home with their daughter. If the pair had had a medical power of attorney, Thompson’s suit, which ended successfully in 1991, could have been avoided.

And on May 29 of this year, an appeals-court decision in New York stripped visitation rights from a lesbian mother who had co-parented for four years the children borne by her ex-partner. The outcome would have been prevented if the couple had pursued a second-parent adoption, which is allowed in New York State or had the second parent given secondary guardianship of the child.

Every major lesbian and gay rights organization urges couples to ensure legal protection of their relationships. The “Eight Essential Documents” advised by the national center are:

Durable power of attorney for health care:
The purpose is to gives a selected person (partner or trusted friend) authority to make all decisions if the person can not communicate, a role otherwise given to the legal “closest family member.”

Hospital visitation authorization:
This document will assure selected one’s loved ones will be permitted to visit if a person is incapacitated and unable to make wishes known.

Living Will:
This serves as a directive to physicians and can offer specific instructions on whether certain medical procedures, such as resuscitation, are desired.

Durable power of attorney for finances:
This document enables the partner to make crucial financial decisions if the person becomes unable to handle their own financial matters.

Authorization for consent to medical treatment of a minor and nomination of guardian of a minor:
These two documents are crucial documents for parents unable to secure a second-parent adoption, which is available in only a handful of states.

Will or living trust:
These legal documents must be completed if one wishes to leave assets to a partner. Without it, one’s biological family assumes all assets and belongings, including household goods. The family would also make the initial, and vitally important decisions after death, unless another document, consent to autopsy and disposition of remains, leaves other instructions.

Without the Option to Say ‘I Do’ Gay Couples Have Fewer Protections

Since gay and lesbian couples do not have the option to marry, experts note they cannot gain the same protections that heterosexual couples attain once they are legally wed.

Two studies, “Left at the Altar” from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and “Overview of Protections, Benefits, and Obligations of Marriage Under Massachusetts and Federal Law,” from the Massachusetts group, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, document a matrix of overlapping state and federal laws that fully define the rights of married spouses. In addition to property laws that automatically treat married couples as an economic unit and laws defining parents’ rights and obligations after divorce, the reports outline lesser known laws that protect spouses from having to do such things as testify against their partners and stipulate the visitation rights for spouses whose partners land in prison.

Alternate protections such as Vermont’s “civil unions,” which were created as a response to a 2000 judicial mandate, or California’s newly crafted and extensive domestic-partners law, which took effect in April, do their best to cover all the major bases possible on the state level. But experts say it is very difficult to create protections that include all of the subsidiary rights that automatically come with a wedding ring. And substitutes do not have any impact on federal matters such as taxes or Social Security.

Still, civil unions and domestic partnerships are now being recognized by federal authorities such as Kenneth Feinberg, the Special Master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, who has pronounced himself open to a “flexible definition of family” in the disbursement of funds if state laws allow it. The Democratic National Committee passed a resolution in January calling for Social Security survivor benefits for same-sex domestic partners.

In the meantime, Stone and Ross will travel around the country bandying their motto, “There’s No Justice–There’s Just Us!” The motto, they say, reflects the fact that few legal protections for gays and lesbians have emerged over the years.

Carrie Stone points to the 2000 HBO film “If These Walls Could Talk 2,” in which a character played by Vanessa Redgrave is first denied access to her partner in the hospital following an accident, and then, after the partner’s death, loses the home they lived in together for 50 years. “That movie was set in the 1960s,” says Stone, “But that exact scenario is happening right now–all over the country.”

Chris Lombardi is a New York-based freelance writer. She was the primary writer of Women’s Enews “21 Leaders for the 21st Century” series. She also writes for The Nation, The Progressive and other publications.

For more information:

See also Women’s Enews, January 19, 2002:
“Partners of September 11 Victims Denied Compensation”:
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/789/

Rainbow Law:
http://www.rainbowlaw.com

National Center for Lesbian Rights:
http://www.nclrights.org

For more information:

Report on U.N. Population Fund Activities in China:
http://www.house.gov/maloney/issues/UNFPA/unfpausreport.pdf



White House Pulls Funding For U.N. Reproductive Health Program

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–The United States will not donate money to the United Nations agency responsible for conducting reproductive health care in developing countries, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher announced Monday.

This year’s $34 million donation to the United Nations Population Fund had been held by President Bush since December, when it was approved by Congress. At that time, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey charged that the agency supported coerced abortions in China.

In May, Bush instructed the State Department to investigate Smith’s allegations. Investigators found Smith’s charge to be false and recommended that the funding be released, according to the report they sent later that month to Secretary of State Colin Powell.

But on Monday, Boucher said, “After careful consideration of the law and all the information that’s available, including the report from the team that we sent to China in May, we came to the conclusion that the U.N. Population Fund monies go to Chinese agencies that carry out coercive programs.”

The U.S. donation, which would have supported family-planning activities in 140 countries, will instead go child survival and health programs conducted in 80 countries by the U.S. Agency for International Development, Boucher said.

“The Bush administration is sacrificing the health of millions of poor women and children in order to play into the hands of anti-choice supporters,” said Julia Ernst, international legislative counsel for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in New York.

“Family-planning programs have clearly helped families worldwide,” she said. “Withholding these funds will have a devastating effect on a global scale.”


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