Legal obstacles still plague gay couples.
They say that our relationships are what truly make life special. So, what if you couldn’t stand under a chuppah to marry the one you love in your own hometown? What if there was a law that kept you from having children with your soul mate?
The fact is, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) individuals are not protected by many American civil rights, including the right to marry and to adopt children together. It’s not illegal to deny housing or employment to LGBT citizens because of their sexual preference either. Additionally, they may also be asked to leave a business or denied service at a business without recourse.
Same-sex marriages are not recognized in most U.S. jurisdictions, including Michigan. Currently only nine states have legalized same-sex marriage: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington, Maine and Maryland as well as the District of Columbia.
While it may not seem significant to some that LGBT people are not allowed to be married, there are actually more than 1,100 state and federal benefits, rights and protections associated with legal civil marriage that they are unable to take advantage of as a result of not being “legally married.” Among them:
• The right to inherit property from their spouse if he/she dies without a will (without having to pay inheritance taxes).
• The right to make medical decisions for their spouse should they become incapacitated.
• The right to hospital visitation, including ICU and emergency room, if their spouse is incapacitated.
• The right to receive their spouse’s share of Social Security benefits.
• The right to be a beneficiary on a state or federal pension.
• The right for a person from a foreign country to gain citizenship by virtue of marriage.
• The right to file joint income taxes with the IRS.
• The right to have a court decide property distribution and child custody issues should their marriage break up.
Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg is celebrating his 25th year as rabbi of Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy. In April of this year, he married his partner, Robert Crowe, in Windsor.
“I’ll never forget the feeling of standing on the banks of the Detroit River in Canada, facing the other side of the river where our home is — our home that doesn’t recognize our marriage,” he recalls.
Robert is from England, so the two headed off to England in July to get married with Robert’s friends and family present. Robert, being a British citizen, can live in the U.S. on a work visa, but does not have the right to become a U.S. citizen by virtue of marriage.
On Sept. 3, 2012, they had a ceremony at their home in Lake Orion with 450 friends, family and supporters. “It was a complete Jewish wedding in every way with the exception of not being recognized by the state,” Sleutelberg explains.
“We have made a lot of progress along the way, but we still have a way to go,” he says. “I would never have believed that my congregation would be so welcoming and come together the way they have to support us. I am very grateful to be in this community and for serving the congregation that I do.”
Synagogues And Gays
Roughly 30 years ago, synagogues did not welcome the Jewish gay community with open arms as it does today and “it wasn’t safe for the gay community to attend a synagogue,” according to Michael Phillips, president of the Jewish Gay Network of Michigan.
“Gay people were not allowed to be leaders in the synagogue, gay relationships were not recognized and anniversaries were not celebrated,” Sluetelberg recalls. “Membership back then was granted based on a family unit, so a gay couple would be required to have two single memberships rather than one family membership.”
Things have changed significantly over the years, however, Sleutelberg says. “For the most part, today synagogues are embracing gay members and meeting them will full acceptance. We are ordaining gay rabbis, and gay couples can join as a family and celebrate their anniversaries as well.”
Changes came first in the more liberal Reform community. The Conservative community made great strides in December 2006.
“As a result of the teshuvah written by Rabbis Eliott Dorff, Danny Nevins and Avram Reisner, which received 13 votes and used the principle of k’vod habriot (human dignity) to override rabbinic prohibitions on homosexuality, gay ordination and same-sex unions are now permitted,” says Judy Lewis, director of the local Affirmations Faith Alliance.
Prohibitions still are in force in the Orthodox community, but “social attitudes toward gay Jews have begun to shift, due in part to movies like Trembling Before God,” Lewis says.
Adoption No Option
LGBT couples cannot jointly adopt children in Michigan. Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the LGBT Project of the ACLU of Michigan, says, “The language of Michigan’s adoption law doesn’t specifically address gay people adopting. There is a provision in the law that says if a person is married his/her spouse must join in on the adoption petition. Some judges have interpreted this requirement as meaning that only a legally married couple can jointly adopt. Because same-sex couples cannot marry in Michigan, they cannot jointly adopt their children.”
The ACLU does not agree with this interpretation of the law.
“There is no Michigan appellate court decision that has addressed the issue of gay couples adopting,” Kaplan says. “We believe that these judges are manufacturing an exclusion that is not specifically indicated in the statute.” He asserts that this has elevated the issue of marital status over the issue of what’s in the best interests of the child.
Richard Vaughn, founding partner of the International Fertility Law Group in Los Angeles, says that surrogacy isn’t a viable option for gay couples either.
“There are two types of surrogacy: ‘traditional surrogacy,’ where one woman provides the egg and carries the child, and ‘gestational surrogacy,’ where one woman provides the egg and, after it is fertilized, another woman carries the child. Both types are illegal for all people in Michigan, gay or straight.”
Vaughn was legally married to his life partner in 2008 during a six-month window when same-sex marriage was legal in California. He and his law partner are both fathers through surrogacy.
Miracle Of Nadav
Julia Pais and Beth Greenapple know all too well just how significantly these laws can affect a family. The couple, who live in Southfield with their son, Nadav Pais-Greenapple, went through an exorbitant amount of grief and frustration to have their child together.
Pais, an accounting professional, and Greenapple, a writing services professional at Beth Greenapple, Wordsmith, were introduced by a friend in 1994. At that time, Greenapple lived in New York and Pais lived in Michigan. They had a romantic, long-distance relationship and, after much phone time, they agreed to meet in March of 1995.
The two fell in love and Greenapple eventually moved to Michigan to be with Pais.
They wanted to have a Jewish wedding and wanted their community to be able to celebrate with them, so they chose to hold off getting married. They were hopeful that the Jewish Conservative stance and the state laws on same-sex marriage would change in their favor. In 2005, Greenapple and Pais got married in Windsor.
Same-sex marriage has been legal throughout Canada since 2005. Marriages taking place in Canada, however, are not recognized in Michigan.
The couple hoped to have a child with Greenapple’s egg, along with an anonymous Jewish donor. Like many couples though, after attempts at IUI (Inter-Uterine Insertion), Greenapple was unable to conceive. As an alternative effort, both Greenapple and Pais decided to try IVF (In Vitro Fertilization) at the same time using Greenapple’s eggs. They decided to let fate take its course. Pais became pregnant and gave birth to Nadav (Hebrew for noble and generous) on Feb. 10, 1999.
As difficult as that process was, it wasn’t the end of their struggles. When the clerical staff member at the hospital took a look at the birth certificate application form they filled out, she advised them that she couldn’t submit the form with two mothers on it because it would be rejected by the state.
“This was our first experience of resistance with respect to having a child together,” Pais recalls.
Because the laws in Michigan favor whomever carries the child, Greenapple had to take her name off of the form. “This is when it became real for me,” Greenapple says. “As a ‘genetic egg donor,’ I had no legal rights to Nadav, and this experience made me all the more aware.”
They sued the state of Michigan to get the birth certificate form changed. The state won the case, asserting that they couldn’t change their forms even though there were two different versions of this particular form submitted into evidence.
Greenapple and Pais took time to learn what their choices were and eventually “adopted” their own son through Catholic Social Services. For a brief moment, Pais had to give up her rights as Nadav’s mother and Greenapple had to sign away her rights as well — the rights that the state refused to give to her in the first place. Both Greenapple and Pais then “adopted” their son. “It was humiliating and infuriating,” Greenapple recalls.
They still couldn’t get a birth certificate with both of their names on it until Jennifer Granholm took office and ordered the state to accept applications from parents with dual same-sex parent adoptions like Greenapple and Pais.
Nadav is 13 years old and attends the Roeper School in Bloomfield Hills. He just celebrated his bar mitzvah this past February at Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield.
“Being in a family like mine is completely normal to me,” he says. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Though he has not encountered prejudice from people, he says, “Sometimes people are surprised when I first tell them about my moms.”
ACLU’s Kaplan says, “Although polling of Michiganders reflects that people are fairly progressive on LGBT issues, these attitudes are not reflected in our current laws and public policies. This is likely because most people are not aware of the positions of their elected leaders regarding LGBT issues.”
Greenapple, who has seen positive change in recent years on LGBT issues, says, “The Torah tells us ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue.’ Jews are called upon to ensure justice for everyone.”
By Karen Schultz Tarnopol, Special to the Jewish News