SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)--In mid-May, Elizabeth Kristen and Mali Kigasari, together for 12 years, set a new wedding date for June 16, the first slot available at San Francisco City Hall.
They grabbed their first opportunity immediately after the California Supreme Court ruled that lesbians and gays have the same constitutional rights as heterosexuals to marry whom they choose. California has now joined Massachusetts in permitting same-sex marriage.
In its scope and forceful wording, the marriage ruling is a landmark rights victory for the entire lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, said Kate Kendell, executive director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights.
It was especially sweet for lesbians, who are more likely than gay men to marry or enter into registered domestic partnerships when possible and to have children.
"Given the security legal marriage provides to a family--especially when children are a part of that family--this victory will have a real and immediate effect on a significant number of lesbian-headed households," said Kendell, a lawyer with three children.
Marriage Rights Are Cornerstone
The lesbian rights agenda ranges from fertility issues to death benefits to immigration, as well as the right to serve in the military. A recent report issued by the Washington-based Servicemembers' Legal Defense Network indicated that in fiscal 2006, women made up 17 percent of the Army but 35 percent of discharges under the "don't ask" law. One year later, women were 15 percent of Army members, yet discharges of women increased to 45 percent of the total.
Kendell argued that the right to legally marry is a cornerstone in the push for full acceptance and equality.
"Every issue that affects the lives of the entire lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community and of course, lesbians in particular, in the country--child custody, adoption, employment, hate crimes, family formation and protection, health care--will all be positively impacted by this ruling."
More than 40 states restrict marriage to a man and a woman, including 26 with constitutional amendments, and Kristen and Kigasari's marriage will not be recognized in those states.
Same-sex couples are likely to trek to California to marry, but most will not be able to take their certificates back home and expect to receive the thousands of rights and benefits that marriage affords to heterosexual couples, such as filing joint income taxes. That's likely to require further legal challenges, said Jennifer C. Pizer of New-York based Lambda Legal and co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the case.
"California has been ahead of much of the country legally and socially in terms of gay and lesbian equality," Pizer added. "That's why this victory happened here now. I believe that eventually gay and lesbian couples will have equal rights throughout the country. The question is not if that will happen but how long it will take, and I suspect it will take quite a while."
Diane Sabin, a San Francisco chiropractor, and her partner, writer Jewelle Gomez, were among 14 plaintiff couples in the Supreme Court case. "I'd like to feel like I'm a full participant in the culture," Sabin told Women's eNews. "I've certainly had the responsibilities but I haven't had the right."
Victory Not Secured
But a battle to secure the victory comes next.
Those opposing the ruling are trying to block implementation until November, when they hope to bring a constitutional ballot amendment before voters that would echo state laws defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he will not support the amendment drive.
"The court has shown an outrageous lack of respect for the expressed will of a majority of California voters," said Jennifer Monk, a lawyer with Advocates for Faith and Freedom in Murrieta, Calif. "I think this decision is going to wake up California voters and make them realize how important this issue is, that they have to go back and speak up again." The Alliance Defense Fund, based in Scotsdale, Ariz., has joined the fight against the ruling.
Grouped under the coalition ProtectMarriage.com, opponents say they have gathered more than 1.1 million signatures--more than the almost 700,000 needed--to place the amendment on the ballot.
Both sides pledge to spend as much as $20 million in what promises to be a potent election issue for the state's more than 20 million eligible voters.
In another legal advance for lesbians, a federal appeals court in California reinstated in May a challenge to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy requiring lesbians and gays to conceal their sexual orientation. The challenge is brought by a decorated female soldier who was discharged after her lesbian relationship reached Air Force attention, according to press reports.
Kristen, a 41-year-old lawyer, and Kigasari, a 49-year-old paralegal, were among more than 4,000 lesbian and gay couples who married in San Francisco in 2004 and received the rewards and privileges of legal union in California. It was short-lived. Within months the city-sanctioned marriages were annulled under state law defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
"The feeling is so different when you're married," said Kristen. "The rights and responsibilities of course are important to us, but I really felt emotionally different being married to my partner. Marriage has a special meaning in our culture."
The ruling follows a steady expansion of domestic partnership rights in California since the 1980s and 1990s, when a lesbian might have been barred from a partner's hospital deathbed because she was not considered kin.
In 2000, though, Californians passed Proposition 22, which limited marriage to heterosexual couples but was not added to the state constitution.
In its 4-3 decision, the state Supreme Court struck that down along with a 1977 law, drawing on its 1948 ruling against interracial marriage bans.
Supreme courts in Connecticut and Iowa are considering same-sex marriage cases.
Kendell does not expect California's example to trigger an immediate ripple effect. After November, her immediate focus will turn to establishing and expanding domestic partnership rights rather than same-sex marriage rights in more socially conservative regions.
Increasingly, lesbians' concerns cluster around family law: questions of parental rights and duties, child custody and discrimination by medical providers including fertility doctors, said Lambda Legal's Pizer.
"There's been a shift for lesbians and gay men where a lot more people believe we should be free to have a family if we want to, and many people do want to," she said. "It was something inconceivable 50 years ago and difficult for people to imagine even 25 years ago."
That shift coincides with advances in reproductive medicine that open more options--as well as potential legal and social barriers--for same-sex couples who wish to have children.
Lesbians may look for models in nations such as the Netherlands--the first to open the way to same-sex marriages--but the most informed lessons, Pizer said, may be found in the U.S. women's and civil rights movements.
"The powerful reactionary religious groups in this country are a challenge, as they have been for women's equality and reproductive autonomy," she said. "The exact same dynamic that made it difficult to maintain a thriving feminist movement are at work in exactly the same way. . . for queer people."
Lorraine Orlandi is a freelance journalist based in California who has written about women's rights in the United States and Latin America.
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