Not every couple celebrates their first and 25th anniversaries in the same year. Then again, not every couple has navigated a roller coaster quite like the one Michael Sabatino and Robert Voorheis have – that of legal recognition of same gender relationships both as activists and a committed couple.
After a short courtship, the couple held their first nuptials in the form of a commitment ceremony in 1979. “We knew it wasn’t something that was done but it was something that was important to us,” says Robert. “Our gay friends couldn’t wrap their heads around two men having a ceremony. People in the (LGBT) community were having trouble with it.”
Friends and family also had various reactions. No one from Robert’s family attended their commitment ceremony although, he says, “Michael was accepted as a member of the family.” While Michael’s mother was open to attending, the two had kept the ceremony a secret from Michael’s father. They knew of no way for the mother to be away for so long without arousing suspicion. Michael points out, however, that some of his cousins attended, and one of his maternal aunts gave them a gift. “She accepted the ceremony as a wedding and gave us the same gift she had given to all of her nieces and nephews at their weddings,” he says.
Robert and Michael took another interim step in 2002, becoming the second couple in Westchester County (in New York State) to register as domestic partners. “Domestic partnership was a non-entity,” says Robert, “though we were thrilled it was happening. This was the first step to full marriage equality.” Never-the-less, the couple did not treat their domestic partnership as anything other than a legality and held no ceremony to mark the occasion.
Dealing with the palpable discomfort among friends within the LGBT community after their 1979 commitment ceremony would prove to be a valuable experience. The couple encountered substantial resistance among established LGBT organizations during their early participation in the movement for marriage equality.
Michael remembers the push back in the early years of campaigning for marriage equality. “All of the major organizations were against us. The first inkling that we were getting somewhere was when Massachusetts got it, or maybe when Canada approved marriage. I think that, to us, was one of the turning points,” he says, both for them and the established LGBT organizations.
“I happened to be on a business trip, that Robert had joined me on, and Robert had just gone back home,” says Michael, reflecting back on the day when Canada joined the ranks of marriage equality countries. “I remained in Canada. I called him back and asked if he wanted to get married.”
Then, in 2003, 24 years after their commitment ceremony, Michael and Robert legally married each other in Niagara Falls, Canada, in front of approximately 50 guests. This time, rather than issues pertaining to cultural acceptance, it was geographical distance that kept the event from being even larger. “My cousin who, we thought, would never accept the invitation was the first to accept,” notes Michael. “My mom gave us away.”
Their wedding in Canada added impetus to their quest for full equality at home. The couple, represented by Lambda Legal, intervened on behalf of the Westchester County Executive, who was sued by an outside party for recognizing out-of-state marriages like theirs. The case, Godfrey vs. Spano, would go to New York’s highest court and set the precedent for statewide legal recognition of gay couples married in other jurisdictions.
In addition to their early involvement as litigants, Michael and Robert were among the original founders of Marriage Equality New York, which later would merge with Marriage Equality USA. “I think we were one of only two couples among the early participants, the other being Cathy Marino Thomas and her wife, Sheila,” says Robert. “The rest were all single. There were 10 in the core group.” Although the two have partaken in more than their fair share of rallies, their emphasis has always been on education and engagement. “Education is the key — you have to make people aware of the issues,” says Robert.
Once married, the two quickly realized their work as activists and educators was far from finished. Upon returning from their wedding, the priest at their local Catholic parish ejected them from the choir. “Making people realize you cannot separate the church from this issue,” says Robert, was one of key elements the two considered critical. “LGBT groups backed away from us, characterizing it as a religious issue. But it is not just a religious issue, it is a civil rights issue. LGBT groups experienced in lobbying told us at MENY that we could not ask our legislators what their position was on marriage for same sex couples. It was too controversial.”
In spite of opposition from all sides, Robert says that, from the beginning, “We knew we were going to ask about one question -- marriage. MENY sent out a statewide questionnaire. Most legislators ignored them. Of those who returned them, there were certainly more ‘no’s’ than ‘yes’s.’” Picking up where his husband left off, Michael adds that, “within a year after Canada, they (LGBT organizations) were starting to embrace the idea. MENY coined the term ‘marriage equality.’”
The couple also lays claim to another milestone in the marriage equality movement, having been instrumental in making the connections to get Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer to Canada for their wedding. Windsor vs. U.S. would become the landmark decision requiring the federal government to recognize marriages performed in marriage equality states. The opinion cited Godfrey vs. Spano, in which Robert and Michael had been lead participants to prove their marriage was recognized in New York State.
Since Windsor, when same gender couples could finally receive all of the rights, responsibilities and privileges of marriage afforded by federal law, the couple has contemplated the reality of true marriage equality. Discussing the reality of a potentially larger federal income tax liability because of the marriage penalty, Michael notes, “That is one of the responsibilities of marriage, to pay that marriage penalty. I was happy to pay those taxes because I am now an equal citizen. It comes with the whole enchilada. You want to be treated equally, that’s part of the whole enchilada. That’s what comes with the rights and responsibilities of marriage. You can’t just take the pluses and eliminate the minuses. But you now also have the rights that we have been denied for so long.”
With equal marriage rights having been secured in New York and much of the country, Robert will be stepping down from the MEUSA board. "Each of us owes a huge debt of gratitude to Robert and Michael for their work and personal sacrifice in making both MEUSA and the entire marriage equality movement a success,” says MEUSA Executive Director Brian Silva. "Their successful lawsuit early in our struggle was critical in bringing recognition for LGBTQ New York families. And Robert's leadership on our Board as we have merged, transitioned and grown in these past few years will be sorely missed."
Twice in our lives, we’ve quit our jobs and travelled around the world for a year with whatever we could carry on our backs. So we love this year’s parade theme: Color Our World with Pride. After San Francisco Pride, we will be headed to Okinawa, Japan, to participate in the Pink Dot Okinawa pride events and speak at the very first Okinawa marriage equality rally, to be held in the center of the island’s largest city.
In Japan, we will also continue our collaboration with Japanese LGBT activists in Tokyo and Osaka. Recently, Akie Abe, the Japanese First Lady, rode in the Tokyo Pride Parade accompanied by a fabulous drag queen, and proclaimed: “I want to help build a society where anyone can lead happy, contented lives without facing discrimination.”
Across two oceans, Luxembourg Pride will celebrate the tiny country’s giant news that earlier this month it became the 19th country with marriage equality. The fact that Luxembourg’s openly gay Prime Minister Xavier Battel will implement the law makes the landslide 56-4 vote in the Chamber of Deputies all the sweeter. And as soccer fans around the globe follow the World Cup this summer, we take pride that the host country Brazil, a nation of 200 million people, boasts marriage equality. Indeed, last December the Rio de Janeiro Superior Court of Justice conducted the world’s largest LGBT wedding ever, in which 130 couples tied the knot.
However, in other parts of the world, LGBT people are marching for their basic human rights and freedom. In India, Mumbai’s Pride Parade this February drew a record crowd gathering to protest the Indian Supreme Court’s upholding “Section 377,” a British colonial era law that criminalized sexual activity of LGBT people. The Indian Supreme Court’s decision has galvanized many Indian LGBT people and allies to stand up and fight back. In a rare move, the Indian Supreme Court has agreed to rehear the case.
Sadly, there will be no pride parades this summer in many parts of the globe where LGBT people are struggling simply to survive. In nine countries, LGBT sexual activity is punishable by death. One image that remains emblazoned on our minds is a 2010 photograph of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, who were arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison in the East African nation of Malawi for being gay and announcing their engagement to be married. The photo shows Steven and Tiwonge—alone and handcuffed together in the back of pick-up truck—being hauled off to jail, surrounded by a mocking and jeering crowd. We will hold their image in our minds as we ride down Market Street, celebrating the one-year anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s overturning DOMA and Prop 8, this past year’s historic string of marriage equality victories, and the wonderful degree of freedom we have attained in San Francisco.
We must create global collaboration and community to truly color the world with rainbow pride. Perhaps no country speaks better of the potential of such collaboration than South Africa. In 2006, South Africa became the fifth country in the world to gain marriage equality—before every other state in the United States except Massachusetts—thanks to specific sexual orientation protection in their constitution. Two years ago, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg praised the South African Constitution—a true product of international collaboration—as “a fundamental instrument of government that embrace(s) basic human rights,” and calling it “a great piece of work that was done.” This year’s Pride celebrations remind us that we have much more great work to do together.
By MEUSA National Media Director Stuart Gaffney and MEUSA Director of Legal & Policy John Lewis
This article originally appeared in SF Bay Times, June 26, 2014: http://sfbaytimes.com/color-our-world-with-rainbow-pride/ A photo of Gaffney and Lewis also served as the cover for that issue.
John Lewis graduated in the top ten percent of his class from Stanford Law School in 1986, where he was awarded the Steven M. Block Award for writing on Civil Liberties. After clerking for the Honorable Thelton E. Henderson of the Northern District of California Federal Court, he practiced civil rights, public policy, and constitutional law.
John and his husband, Stuart Gaffney, were plaintiffs in the landmark California legal case In Marriage Cases, 43 Cal.4th 757 (2008), that established broad constitutional protections for lesbian and gay people and the freedom to marry in California before Proposition 8.
John is a member of the State Bar of California. John provides legal analyses of marriage equality-related court case proceedings, judicial decisions, and legislation to Marriage Equality USA leaders and members.
Additionally, John works with his husband, Stuart Gaffney, Marriage Equality USA's Communications Director, as a media resource and public spokesperson for the organization. John is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, is a columnist for the San Francisco Bay Times and writes for other publications as well. John authored an amicus brief that MEUSA submitted to the United States Supreme Court in February 2013.
Interesting fact: John worked in a refugee camp in the Philippines for Southeast Asian refugees in the early 1980's.
Last month in Denver, Jolene Mewing attended the Tenth Circuit's oral arguments for Kitchen v. Herbert, the Utah marriage equality case. Jolene gives us her first-person perspective on the hearing from her seat inside the courtroom.
The week leading up to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals’ hearing in the Kitchen v. Herbert case was full of excitement and anxiety. My wife and I attended a send-off rally for the plaintiffs to show the community is behind them and supports everything they have done for all of us.
Once I reached Denver, it was time to head to a rally on the steps of the Byron White United States Courthouse, where the 10th Circuit Court is located. The press was already there in full force garnering details and background information they could work into their stories. The weather was beautiful and perfect.
The rally was held the night prior to the case being heard beyond the doors to this illustrious building. The rally was put on by Why Marriage Matters Colorado. The energy level was high as a DJ cranked out music that was positive and charged. Guest speakers empowered the crowd, which started to grow in numbers.
Thursday morning (10 April 2014) I arrived at the courthouse early to ensure a place inside the actual courtroom. There was an overflow room, too; however, I had been handed number 42, which guaranteed a place inside the courtroom where history would be made.
The three judges presiding over the case, Carlos Lucero, Jerome Holmes, and Paul Kelly, loomed powerful over the courtroom. Their many years of experience was etched on each of their faces. I looked at them thinking the fate of marriage equality in Utah rests in their hands. I was nervous. The plaintiffs were sitting on a bench behind their attorneys; I could only wonder what they were feeling inside.
Peggy Tomsic commanded the room for the plaintiffs while Gene Schaerr represented the State of Utah. Both were to speak for 30 minutes each but were allotted more time due to interruptions by the judges throughout their statements.
Besides the extreme injustice of the case itself, what makes this case even more intolerable is the fact our family’s state income tax dollars are being used to pay for this case—our very own money is being used to fight against our right for marriage equality. That sickens me inside.
Once started, the courtroom was quiet except for those asking and answering the questions. Many times the judges spoke over the attorneys, cutting them off in mid-sentence. A few times, there was a little laughter, soon followed by the stark seriousness of the morning’s circumstance.
I sat in silence as I watched history happening in front of me. I was here to support the plaintiffs and to be part of something bigger than I could ever imagine. When I left the courtroom, my emotions were all over the place. The murmurs started as people were speculating which way the court would lean. In my heart, I know the judges will make the right decision. I also know that whatever way the 10th Circuit Court rules, there will be an appeal, which means more of our taxpayer dollars will be used to fight against the marriage of me to my wife.
I always felt I’d see marriage equality in my lifetime—I just didn’t think it would happen this quickly or that Utah would play such a pivotal role in marriage equality for all the states. After attending the hearing in Denver, I know marriage equality is closer than it’s ever been. I also know we are on the right side of history as we watch it unfold before us.
By Jolene Mewing, Local Organizer, Utah Regional Operating Committee, Marriage Equality USA.
Note: I am not an attorney or a qualified tax expert. No action should be taken based solely on the content of these memos. However, I hope the memos will help you ask the right questions of people who are qualified in these issues.
Now that same sex couples can marry in California, they may qualify for paid family leave under California law. They may also qualify for family leave under federal law. However the federal law does not provide income during the period of the leave.
Here is how the state law works.
California law allows people who work for most private employers to take up to 6 weeks (per 12 month period) of paid time off of work to care for a seriously ill child, spouse, parent, or registered domestic partner, or to bond with a new born child. People may also take paid time off to bond with a newly adopted child or with a child who is new to the home as a foster child.
In addition, self employed workers can qualify for the benefit if they have enrolled in the State Disability Income Elective Coverage Program.
Since same sex couples are now allowed to marry in California, workers can now qualify for paid time off to care for a seriously ill same sex spouse.
This paid time off program is a part of the California Disability Insurance (SDI) program, and those who qualify for SDI generally qualify for paid family leave as well.
Generally employees of the state of California do not qualify for this benefit. However they do qualify if their union has successfully bargained for the right to the coverage.
There is a federal family leave law that does require employers to re-hire workers who have taken time off under that law to care for a sick family member. However, that federal law does not provide any income during the leave period. Also, to qualify for the federal program, the worker must be employed by a company that has at least 50 employees within 75 miles of where the person seeking leave time works.
By contrast, the California Paid Family Leave Program provides income during the leave time, but employers are not required to take the worker back.
The weekly benefit amount (provided by the California Paid Family Leave Program) is approximately 55 percent of the earnings shown in the highest quarter of the employee’s base period. But the total will not exceed $266 per week. The payments come from the state. The employer is not required to pay the employee during the leave period.
Sometimes workers can take adequate care of their spouse, or other family member while working part time. In that case they can get paid part time by their employer and get a partial payment from the California Paid Family Leave Program as well.
Employers can require their workers to take up to 2 weeks of accrued vacation time before leaving on paid family leave. However, they can’t require workers to use accrued sick leave before starting paid family leave.
A medical certificate from a doctor is required when the time off is requested in order to care for a seriously ill family member. That certificate must include a diagnosis of the family member’s illness, the beginning date and probable duration of the illness, along with a statement that care by the person seeking time off is appropriate.
If the request is for bonding the time off requested must be within one year of the arrival of the child.
Or they can order a paper copy of form DE 2501F by calling 1-877-238-4373. Hearing impaired people can order the form by Teletypewriter (TTY) 1-800-445-1312. The form also is available to be downloaded.
Authored by Boyce Hinman, founder and director of the California Communities United Institute, and member of Marriage Equality USA. Hinman has been writing and posting a series, "Monday Morning Marriage Memo," as part of his Anatomy for Justice blog. This article was first published there, and is republished here with the author’s permission. Hinman resides in and serves California, therefore the posts sometimes have a California slant.
NOTE: Marriage Equality USA is not a legal firm or a tax/accounting firm. No action should be taken based solely on the content of our news blog or website.