D.C.'s same-sex marriage proposal has couples contemplating moving

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 16, 2010; B01

Chryssa Zizos drives from her Alexandria home past her 6-year-old daughter's elementary school -- two blocks. Past grandma's house -- a few more blocks, arriving at the school where her 3-year-old son spends his days in the same big classroom as his other mother once spent hers.

"How can we move?" Zizos asked. "It's not that easy. We've built a life and a family here. We shouldn't have to disrupt and displace that because we have better laws six miles from our home."

Before they had children, Zizos and her partner of 16 years, Karen Bell, chose to settle in Alexandria even though they knew their rights as a gay couple would be limited. They didn't want to create a life anywhere else. Now, just weeks before same-sex marriage becomes legal in the District -- barring congressional intercession -- Zizos, Bell and other gay couples who have settled in the District's Virginia and Maryland suburbs are asking: Is it worth moving?

The question -- make your marriage legal, or stay in the place where you've made a home -- has forced many gay couples to weigh the battle for equal rights against quality-of-life issues, pitting a yard in Fairfax County against the chance to lock in inheritance and hospital visitation rights and the other benefits of marriage.

"My partner just turned to me a month ago and said, 'You know, if they pass this in D.C., would you want to get married?' " said Rich Hooks Wayman, who is adopting 4-year-old twins with his partner, Aaron Hooks Wayman. "A lot of us in this community are talking about what this really looks like and whether it's important or not."

The two moved to Prince George's County 3 1/2 years ago after realizing they couldn't afford a place in the District with the green space they wanted and enough room to raise three or four children. (Virginia wasn't a consideration because they were barred from serving as foster parents there, as they had done in Minnesota and wanted to do again). As Rich considered his partner's question, he talked about the faith community they've joined and the ease with which they can get to the beach and the mean stares they sometimes get from strangers. "It's not only us but also our children we have to think about," he said.

Gay activists and experts on same-sex couples say that if the District's endorsement of gay marriage survives -- the council and mayor approved a measure last month, and Congress has 30 days to review the bill -- they do not expect a mass migration of suburban couples. What is more likely, they said, is that the tourism industry will see a spike as couples come from across the country to marry and then return to their home states. For couples in Virginia and Maryland with children, analysts said, the opportunity for legal marriage will probably be outweighed by misgivings about the District's troubled public schools.

Where to call home

"These are very complex decision processes," said demographer Gary Gates, who specializes in same-sex couples at UCLA's Williams Institute. "There are two dimensions: rights and social climates. For a lot of people, what they see when they go visit a place, they don't see the rights, they see the social climate."

If the District were to experience a significant population shift, Gates said, it would most likely be to diminish an imbalance in which the District is home to more than three times as many gay male couples as gay female couples. According to the U.S. Census's 2008 American Community Survey, 2,742 male couples live in the District compared with 787 lesbian couples. That might shift, as it has in Massachusetts, where gay marriage has been legal since 2004, because gay women tend to marry in higher numbers than do gay men. But Gates said the change might not be as dramatic in the District because of the gap in reputation between D.C. schools and those in the suburbs.

Kathryn Hamm, president of GayWeddings.com, who is raising a 3-year-old son with her partner in Arlington County, said they won't be moving, even though she recognizes that Virginia law is much less welcoming to her family than the District seeks to be. "In the eyes of Virginia law, we feel 'less than,' " Hamm said. "But in the eyes of our neighbors, we don't. We love the educational opportunities for our son here, and that's probably the strongest point we can hang our hat on."

She said she is excited to see D.C. law catch up to what gay couples have long said: "Our relationships are valid. Our relationships are no different than anybody else's." But whether that will translate into packed boxes for families such as hers comes down to financial considerations and how comfortable families feel in their neighborhoods.

Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz, 38, and Lisbeth Melendez Rivera, 43, live in Silver Spring, and although they had a commitment ceremony nine years ago, they have no plans to marry until the right to do so exists in Maryland. "Right now, we consider ourselves married," Melendez Rivera said. "The question is: Do we want to put that on paper? And the answer is: We will when everyone around us is allowed to.

"Everyone knows this house right here holds two women," she said. "The idea of starting over, I don't know. You reach a level of comfort where you can walk home with your eyes closed."

Even if the legal change does not unleash a wholesale move into the city, said the District's Richard J. Rosendall of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, it will alter the calculus couples use to decide where to live. "These are extremely personal decisions," he said. "It will start entering the mix of the factors people consider. Everyone understands what it means to be married."

Living under a cloud of risk

Ciara Lascano of Falls Church said she knows that if something were to happen to her partner, Megan Gregory-Morley, she risks losing their home, their savings and their children, Tyler, 9, and Alexis, 17 months. The couple haven't hired lawyers or financial advisers as many other gay couples in the region have; everything remains in the name of Gregory-Morley, the children's biological mother. Recently, the couple's gym wouldn't allow Lascano to drop off the children because she couldn't prove she was their parent.

But although the women would stand to gain more than many, they said they don't plan on moving anytime soon.

"I like that there are so many parks," Lascano, 31, said of living in Fairfax County. "There's malls: I'm sorry; I like to shop." She laughed. She said she finds comfort in having a choice of farmers markets where they can buy fresh food for their toddler, who has allergies, and living near two cul-de-sacs where their 9-year-old can run free. Both she and Gregory-Morley, 30, grew up in Virginia and have parents in the state.

"It's nice to be right up the road from Grandma," Lascano said.

Constant status reminders

On a blustery afternoon, the Zizos-Bell family hurried to the swing sets outside 3-year-old Andrew's school, the same one Bell attended.

The couple has spent more than $10,000 securing legal paperwork that gives them many protections, but they are reminded constantly of their unmarried status: a laminated card in Zizos's wallet gives her "friend" Bell power over her affairs; income tax returns show Bell as a dependent, not a spouse; and an ambulance carrying their daughter Sydney once had to stop so Zizos could collect paperwork from the house proving she had parental rights. Still, to the best of their ability, the couple said they have created the life they want for their children.

After the playground, the family returned home and spread the game Silly Faces across the dining room table. On a chandelier overhead, two watercolor-stained sheets of paper dangled: school-made Mother's Day cards from Sydney. On the one she gave to Bell, whom she calls Mama, she wrote: "I like it when she almost every night reads me books." On the one for Zizos, whom she calls Mommy: "I like it when she is sometimes silly when she says let's put some marinade on you and throw you on the grill."

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