More Perfect Unions – same-sex marriages

Dorothy Pomerantz

Profiles of couplehood in a defense-of-marriage world

Without a legal definition for their relationships, gay men and lesbians in the United States have been left to their own devices when it comes to setting the parameters for their partnerships. While many say government recognition could not change the nature of their commitment to their partners, the following three couples–two from the United States and one from Norway–say their experience in exchanging vows proves that marriage is about more than simple ceremony.


Nicholas Barthold and Steven Rivera consider themselves the gay Ward and June Cleaver. And if you spend any time with them, you can see why. Phone calls are punctuated by the sounds of their four children, and evenings in the couple’s rural Pennsylvania home are spent discussing Little League and homework.

“We don’t feel we’re different from any other parents,” Rivera says. “We have the same worries and hopes for our children.”

But of course, in the eyes of the government, the family is different. While neighboring couples file joint tax returns and share medical benefits, Barthold and Rivera don’t. “They fail to realize they have things we only dream of,” Barthold says of his straight neighbors.

Despite the lack of legal recognition, they do their best to make a safe home for their four children: Justin, 7; Joan, 9; Thomas, 10; and Paul, 14.

Rivera became the children’s legal guardian when their parents–Rivera’s brother and sister-in-law–died of AIDS complications, in 1994 and 1996, respectively. Around the same time, he met Barthold while both were singing in the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus. “It was a very tough time for me,” Rivera says. “I never thought someone would want to share this life in turmoil.”

But someone did. The men soon fell in love, moved in together, and then held a commitment ceremony. In November they broke new legal ground when they became the first same-sex couple in New York State (where they also maintain a home) to be granted joint legal guardianship of their children.

When gay marriage becomes legal, Barthold and Rivera say they will be the first in line. Until then they’ll just continue living their own version of the American dream, with Barthold working as a music publisher and Rivera staying at home with the kids. “Anyone should be a family if they want to be,” Barthold says.


After 16 years in a committed relationship, Ellie Charlton and Jeanne Barnett of Sacramento didn’t think anything could bring them closer together. But in January 1999, when the two were joined in a holy union before more than 1,000 guests and over 90 United Methodist ministers, they realized they were wrong.

The couple’s ceremony, which also served as a protest against the United Methodist Church’s ban on such unions (a church investigation of all participating ministers concluded in February with no charges filed), couldn’t have been more public. But for Charlton and Barnett, it had extremely personal side effects.

“It changed our relationship,” Charlton, 64, says today. “I didn’t think it would.”

Looking lovingly at her partner, the 69-year-old Barnett agrees. “I don’t think you can put it into words,” she says of the change, “but it’s there.”

The two met 18 years ago when Charlton offered emotional support to Barnett, who was just coming out. Two years later the women made a commitment to each other, exchanging rings but never holding a ceremony. “If we were going to have a service, we wanted to have it recognized publicly,” says Barnett, who had long ago given up hope that the United Methodist Church would ever recognize gay and lesbian relationships.

But when the Rev. Donald Fado, who presides over their Sacramento church, suggested in a sermon that his congregation celebrate a same-sex union in protest of the Methodist ban, Barnett and Charlton volunteered. “It was something I knew Jeanne wanted,” Charlton says simply.

Today, both women acknowledge that they don’t have the legal standing heterosexual couples are granted. Nevertheless, they say they’re happy to have had some impact in the battle for legal recognition. “If it was legal, we would have more benefits,” Charlton says, “but it wouldn’t have had so much meaning.”


Gro Lindstad and Bente Vinaes’s first date could have been a disaster. The two women went to a play called Chairs, which they now say was so long that just sitting through it was pure torture. But the evening was salvaged with some good wine and conversation after the play. The two women, who live in Norway, have been together ever since.

They tied the knot legally in August 1998, and unlike gay couples in the United States, they now have almost all of the same benefits as heterosexual married couples. (Norway has had legalized same-sex unions since 1993.)

“It was a great day for both of us,” says the 34-year-old Vinaes. “We would have had a ceremony and party even if the [legal] rights weren’t part of it.”

But even in Norway, same-sex unions are still not recognized by the state church, and same-sex couples are not allowed to adopt children. Lindstad and Vinaes say these barriers stand as testament to the fact that there is a lot of work to be done–even in the most liberal of countries. “Laws don’t change attitudes in society,” says Lindstad, 40. “But they do help.”


A.D. 100 The Roman satirist Juvenal writes about a marriage between two men, which he ironically describes as “nothing special.”

400 The Roman Catholic Church develops “brothermaking” rituals in which two men are blessed during a liturgy, Historian John Boswell argues in a 1994 book that the rites were essentially marriage ceremonies.

1264-1644 During the Yuan and Ming Dynasties same-sex unions are documented in China.

1968 The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches begins conducting holy union ceremonies for lesbian and gay couples.

1975 Two gay men in Phoenix legally obtain a marriage license and wed before the county attorney can file an injunction against them.

1987 The day before the march on Washington 2,000 gay and lesbian couples are “married” in a mass wedding outside the Internal Revenue Service building.

1989 Denmark allows same-sex couples to register their relationships.

1996 A Hawaii court rules that the state has not proved that it has a “compelling interest” for banning gay marriage, Concern over the case leads Congress to overwhelmingly pass the Defense of Marriage Act.

1998 Voters in Alaska and Hawaii approve measures to block same-sex marriages, As a result, the Hawaii case is dismissed as moot the following year.

1999 The Vermont supreme court rules that the state must grant gay and lesbian couples the same rights as married couples.

2000 California voters approve a ballot measure to block recognition of same-sex marriages.

Pomerantz is a reporter for the Los Angeles Business Journal.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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