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State's Marriage Proposal Hits Home in Arlington
Gay County Board Member, Others Decry Amendment

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?"

* * *

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.

After earning a degree in political science, Fisette was waiting for a Peace Corps posting in 1979 when he was offered a job coaching the varsity water polo team at the University of Pittsburgh. He accepted, but the campus abruptly dropped its team. He took three years off, spending time in San Francisco and Europe, where he biked in England and on the continent and enjoyed "one of the best years of my life."

He returned to Pittsburgh to begin a graduate program in public and international affairs. In 1983, he moved to Arlington and took a job at the General Accounting Office. Within three months he'd met Rosen, now president of his own consulting firm.

They fell in love.

* * *

Most Virginians are probably unaware that the proposed constitutional amendment would jeopardize the rights of straight unmarried couples, too, opponents said. House Joint Resolution 41 provides that "only a union between one man and one woman may be a marriage valid in or recognized by this Commonwealth and its political subdivisions." It also prohibits the state and its jurisdictions from "creating or recognizing a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage." Lastly, it bars the state and its jurisdictions from "creating or recognizing another union, partnership, or other legal status to which is assigned the rights, benefits, obligations, qualities, or effects of marriage."

In other words, the amendment outlaws gay marriage, civil unions, domestic partnerships and common law marriages between unmarried heterosexuals. The consequences are innumerable, said Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria).

Opponents of the measure also argue that the language that would be presented to voters is vague and could interfere with all unmarried couples making decisions about such things as health care and property ownership. They said the measure as written could threaten protective orders and additional safeguards for unmarried victims of domestic violence by barring all legal recognition of unmarried family or household members.

"Does this mean that medical powers of attorney, [for] those charged with making medical decisions, won't be recognized?" said Ebbin, who is also openly gay. "Is the right to insure an unmarried partner on your company's health insurance policy not something that would be a legal status that approximates marriage? I don't know, but it opens up a Pandora's box of individual lawsuits where people can challenge any arrangement whatsoever of any couple they don't like."

In Utah and Ohio, where similar amendments are in place, officials have been ordered not to bring to court domestic violence cases that involve unmarried couples, because those relationships aren't recognized, Ebbin said.

The amendment "is really dangerous and has the potential of taking away other rights from Virginians," said Del. Kristen J. Amundson (D-Fairfax), who also argued against the measure on the floor.

The right of governments to prohibit gay marriage has been debated in courtrooms and statehouses across the country.

In Maryland last week, a Baltimore judge ruled that banning same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, pushing the issue to the forefront as the state's 90-day legislative session convened.

Eighteen states define marriage in their constitutions, many in amendments approved since 2003, when a Massachusetts court opened the door to same-sex marriages there, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Massachusetts is the only state that issues marriage licenses to same-sex couples, though Vermont and Connecticut recognize civil unions. Four states, the District and several dozen localities allow couples to formalize relationships through domestic-partnership registries.

Ebbin said gay men and women simply want to enjoy the same freedoms and "relatively boring things afforded their straight counterparts."

"These are not selfish special rights," he said.

* * *

Spread before Fisette in his fourth-floor county office are piles of statistics, including the results of a survey conducted last year by a private research group on behalf of Equality Virginia. The survey found that a majority of Virginians said that while they would vote in favor of amending the state's constitution to define marriage, they agree that broad rights and protections should be extended to gay individuals and couples -- the same rights that are normally associated with marriage.

It is the word "marriage" that makes the issue so contentious, Fisette said.

A majority of those polled -- 59 percent -- agreed that gay Virginians should have the right to civil unions, according to the survey conducted among 800 registered voters in December.

Regardless of their individual positions, an overwhelming majority of the polled voters also said there are far more important issues for elected state officials to worry about.

"A lot of people, if they really understood what the amendment says, they would be upset that the legislature keeps wasting its time on personal issues and personal loving relationships," Fisette said. "It comes down to legislating morality and [to] the political agenda underlying all of this."

* * *

The campaign against the amendment began Sunday inside the bright, airy Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington where the Rev. Richard Nugent distilled the proposed legislation down to this: "mean-spirited."

"It arises out of political expediency and it fuels unfounded fear and bigotry," he said in his sermon to the diverse congregation.

"Truth and not myth must be the foundation of education," Nugent said, acknowledging that not everyone in the congregation was comfortable with same-sex marriage. "It is up to us to make the decision to stand on the side of love . . . not just for some but for all who choose to share their lives."

Afterward, about 60 gay, straight, bisexual and transgendered couples reaffirmed their commitments in a ceremony outside the church.

The couples waited beneath rainbow flags and a banner that read, "Marriage is a civil right." Neither existing law nor an impending ban could keep them from embracing and beaming and saying "I will" when asked if they would always care and love and respect each other.

Later, Fisette, a longtime member of the church, said that to be gay in 2006 is to be political. "This is not our choice, it's been thrust upon us," he said.

Simply shopping together for groceries or going to a PTA meeting have "become conscious acts. To some, they are acts of civil disobedience," he said. "We're seen as flaunting our love, as making a statement. We yearn for the day when these everyday gestures are not viewed as statements or threatening to someone else, but we are not there yet."

Fisette remains optimistic that things will change one day. Should all the rights afforded heterosexuals eventually be granted to gays, he, too, will take the plunge.

"In 30 or 40 years or however long it takes, the right thing will happen and history will put all of this in perspective and judge the mistakes of these elected officials in the General Assembly," he said.

Staff writer Chris L. Jenkins contributed to this report.

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