Waiting for Equality: One Jersey City Couple’s Story

Catherine Hecht (left) and Beth Achenbach – Photo Steve Gold, © Harmony Media, NJ

When Catherine Hecht was young, she indulged in a fantasy common to many girls growing up in this culture. She wanted it all — the dress, the cake, the gigantic wedding celebration with family and friends. She only asked for one slight modification: the two figurines atop the wedding cake both had to be women.

At 39, the Jersey City resident is more than ready to realize the fantasy with her partner of eight years, Beth Achenbach. But they have been waiting for the New Jersey legislature to catch up.

“We’ve been in limbo for a long time,” says Achenbach, who moved to Jersey City from Virginia in 2002 to be with Hecht after the couple had met online. “It’s weird to me that people in Iowa can get married, but in progressive states like New Jersey, there’s nothing going on.”

Well, there was nothing going on.

The past month has seen a flurry of activity in Trenton and around the state, as advocates and their allies have pushed to get a marriage equality bill passed during the legislature’s lame-duck session.

The Freedom of Religion and Equality in Civil Marriage Act, as it is formally known, was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Dec. 8, but withdrawn by its sponsors before appearing before the full Senate. They weren’t sure they had the votes, and decided instead to push the bill to the Assembly, where it currently waits to be posted for debate.

Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts said late last week that he hasn’t decided if he’ll post the bill at all; he says he’s waiting to see if there is enough support for it to pass.

Meanwhile, five Republican senators, saying it looks “unlikely” that the marriage equality bill has the votes to pass the Senate, last week announced they would instead try to strengthen New Jersey’s civil union law.

But the window of opportunity to get a marriage equality bill passed gets smaller with each day. While outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine has promised to sign the legislation if it reaches his desk, Gov.-elect Chris Christie, who takes office Jan. 19, has said he would veto it.

Domestic Partnerships, Civil Unions and Marriage: What’s in a Name?

For several years, Hecht and Achenbach have lived betwixt and between. Since they couldn’t legally get married, they did what they saw as the next best thing: in 2004, they became the first same-sex couple to be granted a domestic partnership under the newly enacted New Jersey Domestic Partnership Act. 

They considered their decision a lifelong commitment, a kind of analog to heterosexual marriage. They had a ceremony, and now celebrate the anniversary of that date. 

“But what are we supposed to call each other?” Hecht asks. “Domestic partners? It sounds like a cleaning service.”

As it turns out, when it comes to civil rights what’s in a name makes all the difference. In New Jersey’s triangulated system, domestic partnerships make up the bottom tier of rights; civil unions, which became available to same-sex couples in 2007, constitute the next tier. Marriage, of course, is the top tier—the coveted one. (Hecht and Achenbach chose to forgo a civil union, opting instead to wait for the legalization of same-sex marriage.)

The distinctions between the tiers pan out in myriad ways, some of them small, some more significant. Take health insurance and other employer-provided benefits. 

Currently, Achenbach works at a printing company; Hecht, former associate publisher of the New York Blade (a free newspaper covering LGBT news that ceased operations this summer), is unemployed. As a domestic partner, Hecht is able to receive coverage under the plan provided by Achenbach’s New York City employer, since New York City has a domestic partnership law.

“We’ve been very lucky,” Hecht explains. Private companies who use terms like “spouse” in their policies sometimes discriminate against couples in domestic partnerships or civil unions — couples who aren’t, technically, married. The burden then falls on the employee to advocate for his or her partner’s access to the coverage. 

In New Jersey, several high-profile cases have shown that “marriage” makes all the difference.

One woman testified to the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission that her labor union refused to provide benefits for her partner under the state civil union law, but changed its position after she told the New Jersey-based union that she and her partner had officially gotten married in Massachusetts.

She wasn’t alone. Of the 1,358 couples that entered into civil unions in the five months after the law went into effect in February 2007, 211 contacted Garden State Equality to say their employers had refused to recognize their civil unions.

The highest-profile company that denied benefits to civil-unioned couples was UPS. The shipping company, which employed nearly 9,000 New Jersey workers at the time, refused to give benefits to civil union partners, arguing that they were legally different than marital spouses.

Ultimately, the company reversed course after facing national media attention and receiving pressure from Gov. Corzine and the state attorney general.

Achenbach says it went easier with her employer, but she still had to do all the legwork, since the human resources person wasn’t sure how the coverage could be applied to Hecht.

“I had to call the insurance company and find out what we needed to do,” Achenbach says. “My HR person didn’t even know — I had to tell her.”

On the home front, Hecht and Achenbach currently rent, but they’d like to buy sometime soon. Again, they encounter a different set of rules.

Because they are not legally married, they would not be able to benefit from the tax breaks — both state and federal — that the government offers married couples who are purchasing a home. The added financial burden makes Hecht “apprehensive” about home-buying. “We would like to enjoy the same privileges other married couples do,” she says.

Problems at the Hospital

Unfortunately, sometimes even civil unions fall short of securing vital rights for same-sex partners. Stories of hospitals denying access to partners are legion; it seems like everyone knows someone who has faced roadblocks.

“We’ve heard lots of stories … of being denied the right to be in the emergency room,” Hecht says.

For example, in 2008, a Montclair woman was admitted to the emergency room for risk of a potentially fatal cardiac arrhythmia. In testimony to the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission, she described the situation, noting that when she arrived she made sure to tell the hospital that she had a civil union partner who was to receive all of her pertinent information.

But when the partner made it to the hospital and asked what was going on with the patient, who was by then was unable to relay any information herself, she was initially denied the information, despite the fact that civil-unioned couples are on the same legal footing as married spouses in this situation.

“[The hospital staffer] was reluctant to give my information. He did not understand, and hadn’t heard of civil unions before,” the woman testified. “We were faced with an emergency medical crisis that was potentially life-threating, and here [my partner] is having to … justify who we are to each other.”

For married couples, Hecht says, all of this is “a non-issue.” But what so many people don’t even think about becomes a constant worry for same-sex couples, leading many to take extra precautions.

“You don’t want to be thinking about paperwork in a time of crisis,” Hecht says, pointing out that when the couple travels, they are always sure to take copies of their domestic partnership certificate with them. 

“We’ve heard of lovers losing their partners in a hospital and they didn’t see them,” she says. “It makes us more conscious when we travel because we know the possibility is there.”

Of Love and Rights

Hecht says she and Achenbach have “very supportive” families and friends. Still, the legal limitations of their relationship can cause a rhetorical disconnect. 

“When my mom, who is 70, talks about us, she doesn’t know what to say,” Hecht says. “In her mind she considers us married, but that’s not the word we were given the right to use.” She adds that friends encourage the couple to “just get over it and say you’re married. You want to be able to say it, but really you’re not.”

As someone who spends a good portion of her workdays printing wedding pictures, Achenbach is forced to think about marriage a lot. “Isn’t it these images that make a young person dream?” she asks. “We all see these images; that’s what we want.”

She and Hecht often think of their ideal ceremony, she says: “We’ve already had someone say they will sing at our wedding; someone said they will design the invitations — it would be nice to know that we could plan it.”

The couple plans to continue living a committed life together, regardless of what happens in the state legislature, but they are quick to point out that, for them, marriage is about more than love.

“I’m really in love with somebody and want to share the rest of my life with her,” Achenbach says. “But when you put all the lovey-dovey stuff aside, those protections [conferred by marriage] are important.” She adds that “it wasn’t that long ago that black and white people couldn’t get married.”

The couple says despite all the love shown by friends and family, they live with a persistent feeling of second-class citizenship. “I’ve lived in the U.S. all my life, I work here, I pay taxes, I contribute to my community,” Hecht says. “And I don’t have the same rights.”

For now, New Jersey’s state legislators will continue to debate the merits of civil unions, will continue to hear testimony for and against marriage equality on moral grounds, and will continue to wrestle with their consciences as they decide whether or not to approve this legislation. But they also have the unusual ability to write the perfect ending to at least one couple’s storybook romance.

“I feel like the way we met, on the computer, we had a little bit of a fairy tale thing,” Achenbach says. “Everything just meshed, and our parents are supportive. It’s like the missing piece to our story.”

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a freelance writer and web copywriter living in Jersey City. She also teaches English to adult refugees and immigrants through the nonprofit The International Institute of New Jersey, and is working towards her MFA in creative nonfiction at The New School.