Civil Unions: Another Step Towards Marriage Equality

Jersey City’s civil unions rally is a tempered celebration, but a celebration nonetheless.

A little before 7 pm on Feb. 19, the sign at Jersey City’s City Hall reads: “Civil Union Rally, Second Floor.”

“I’m so nervous,” one woman says to her female partner, as they join the droves of coupled women and men hurrying up the stairs.

“Excuse me,” I ask, “are you here to file for your civil union license?”

“No,” she quips, pointing to her girlfriend. “She won’t let me.”

Even those couples not taking advantage of their newfound right knew the significance of the evening. When Gov. Jon Corzine signed the civil union bill into law 60 days ago, he made New Jersey the third state in the nation, after Vermont and Connecticut, to allow civil unions. The license offers a couple the legal benefits of marriage in the state, but not the title or federal benefits. Massachusetts is the only state to permit same-sex marriage. Many other countries, particularly in Europe, allow same-sex marriage as well.

The rally hall is abuzz. Channels 9, 11 and 12 news record the proceedings to air on late-night television, a handful of gay and lesbian coalition representatives speak behind a podium draped in a rainbow-colored flag, individuals in the crowd hold signs — “unity,” the pews teem over with advocates, supporters and couples – some gleeful, some sedate — ready to take that commitment to paper.

“It’s a great day,” Joe Nelson of Harrison says while seated in the pew beside his boyfriend of six years, Chris Bryla. “It’s an important step forward. It isn’t marriage, but it’s the closet thing to it right now and we’ll take advantage of it.”

Acknowledgement that the victory was indeed partial set the stage of the rally. Amid the ear-to-ear smiles there was an evident discontent. The letter “M” often escaped the lips of the couples, as if the full term was prohibited from their vocabulary — along with the actual right.

“It’s a bittersweet moment for us,” Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality says about his union with his boyfriend of 15 years, Daniel Gross. “It was a bittersweet moment to raise our hand yesterday and swear under the law to be partners in civil union when, in fact, we wanted to be husband and husband; we want to be married.”

Goldstein and Gross were the first couple to enter into a civil union ceremony in New Jersey at 12:01 a.m. in Teaneck, reaffirming their 2002 Vermont civil union. Though our new law recognizes civil unions and marriage licenses from other states, the couple held a midnight ceremony nonetheless. While Goldstein is excited about his union with Gross, he recognizes that the path to full marriage equality is still a ways off.

“We fear civil unions won’t work in the real world,” Goldstein says. “The real world won’t know what a civil union is and worse yet some hospitals, employers and institutions will say ‘We don’t care what the law says, you’re not married’ and they’ll seek the ‘M’ word. We are already getting complaints from same-sex couples who are calling insurance companies and [learning] they don’t want to cover them like they cover straight spouses — even though that’s now illegal in New Jersey. We’re not fighting for the word marriage just for the morality of it. Think of marriage as the passport that unlocks all those rights — that’s what people understand.”

Civil Unions Mean Extra Hurdles

Goldstein knows firsthand the struggles a same-sex couple with a civil union license faces. During a trip to Montreal, Canada to plan his 2004 wedding, Goldstein lost his passport. He went to the U.S. Consulate with Gross in order to replace it, but Gross was not permitted in the building since he wasn’t considered Goldstein’s family member.

“That’s such a disgusting thing,” Goldstein says. “I felt so diminished, it was heartbreaking. It took two hours to get my passport, so he just waited two hours — all for a passport at the U.S. Consulate in a country that allowed gay people to marry. It was unbelievable.”

Jersey City couple Larry Flick and Shane Owen also filed for their civil union license on Feb. 19. As a bi-national couple, their legalized union will be subjected to numerous hurdles. Owen, a native of Wales, is not a citizen of the United States. Even though the two will be legally united in a state civil union ceremony on Feb. 22 in Maplewood, Owen will not receive automatic citizenship, which is a right designated under federal law only to heterosexual couples who get married.

“We have to file for a spousal visa, but he might not get it,” Flick, the 44-year-old star of the Sirius talk-radio show “OutQ in the Morning,” says.

“We have so many elected officials who are from divorced relationships,” Flick adds. “These are the same who fight so hard for the ‘sanctity’ of marriage. Do they really take marriage seriously? Maybe they do, but I believe I take marriage just as seriously, if not more so. I’m a citizen of this country. This is a country that wants to take my tax money as an equal citizen, but it’s not a country that wants to let me live and love just like everyone else.”

While the two love living in Jersey City they have been contemplating a move to the U.K., where couples in civil unions get full rights. Garden State Equality is determined to win full marriage rights in New Jersey within the next two years, but if it doesn’t become a reality, a move is destined for Flick and Owen.

Another Jersey City couple, Doug Flores and Greg Perez (the co-founder of Chilltown Pride Center) hands over the $28 fee to City Clerk Robert Byrne and files for a civil union license. Flores is delighted.

“We are both from conservative Texas, and we didn’t think we would see this,” he says. “It’s just nice to be here making history.”

But Byrne soon discloses a little complication the gentlemen may face regarding their official union.

“One or both of you can assume each others names,” he said. “But my two cents in this, being that it’s not federally recognized, if you try to change your driver license you run the risk of your driver license not necessarily agreeing with your passport. It’s a tricky thing to do especially if you want to travel. This is one of the things it permits, but in the practical sense [you] would be complicating [your] lives in many different ways if [you] did that.”

Ah yes, yet another logistical glitch regarding the unholy matrimony of civil unions.

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