State's Marriage Proposal Hits Home in Arlington

By Jamie Stockwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 26, 2006

Neither Jay Fisette nor his partner of 22 years has given much thought to the idea of marriage. Besides, as Virginians, marriage isn't even an option for the same-sex couple.

And so Fisette, an Arlington County Board member, said he was surprised at how deeply hurt he felt last week by the overwhelming passage of state legislation to ban gay marriage.

The proposed constitutional amendment, poised to go before voters in November, sailed through the House of Delegates and was expected to face little resistance this week in the Senate. The measure passed both chambers last year but must be approved again this session before it can be put on the ballot.

"Even though it was anticipated that it would pass, I still felt awful," said Fisette, one of only a few openly gay elected officials in the state. "It still made me angry and so mad -- and that was knowing it was coming."

Fisette, 50, said the bill's easy passage was a "symbolic slap in the face" to the state's gay men and lesbians because it "repeats in many ways the existing laws and rubs it in."

Virginia is one of 43 states that specifically bars homosexual marriage. A bill passed last year added a ban against recognition of same-sex civil unions or partnership arrangements to the state's Affirmation of Marriage Act.

Supporters say the constitutional amendment is needed to clarify that Virginia is not compelled to recognize gay marriages or civil arrangements permitted in other states, including Massachusetts and Vermont.

"We're advancing this amendment today because we trust the judgment of the people of Virginia and not the courts," Del. Kathy J. Byron (R-Lynchburg), one of the measure's chief supporters, said in Richmond recently. "Marriage is much more than just two people sharing a committed relationship. By changing the definition of marriage, the family, too, would be redefined, ultimately destroying the traditional family. And if the traditional structure of family no longer matters, what is marriage for?"

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When G.N. "Jay" Fisette became in 1997 the first openly gay person elected to public office in Virginia, he was concerned about being known as "the gay guy." He had spent eight years as director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic of Northern Virginia and was active in a number of civic organizations. But since then, having served several years on the board of Equality Virginia, a statewide nonpartisan support network for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and straight allied communities, he has learned to embrace his role.

Fisette said that by living an honest, open life, he helps to illustrate the normalcy of being gay. He insisted that he and his partner, Bob Rosen, aren't any different from their heterosexual neighbors in the county's Ashton Heights community. They pay bills, shop for groceries and laze around the house with their dogs, Chocco and Cassie.

His coming out wasn't the difficult, painful process it can be for so many others. He wasn't aware of his sexual orientation until his senior year at Bucknell University in central Pennsylvania, and he came out a few months later while living in San Francisco. In high school in the Pittsburgh area, he was an all-American in swimming. In college, he was captain of both the water polo and swim teams.

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