Tallahassee Democrat - When the gay issue hits home

August 21, 2007

By Sharon Kant-Rauch

In more than a year as the Faith editor, I've encountered this phenomenon a number of times: the gay issue as litmus test.

I'll be talking with a pastor or a congregant who will casually interject something like, "Well, we don't believe in gay marriage or anything."

It's a shorthand way of defining the church's beliefs. The assumption is that if you know where the church stands on that issue, you can infer where it stands on others.

When someone makes such a statement, I try to keep a straight face (no pun intended). "Do they know?" I wonder.

I'm a married lesbian. Terry and I had our first ceremony - illegal but love-sanctioned - in 1986 at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Tallahassee. The second ceremony - this time legal, still love-sanctioned - was in Canada in 2004. It was officiated by our own Rabbi Jack Romberg, who flew to Toronto to help us tie the knot a second time.

I assume the people I'm interviewing are unaware of that - and I don't clue them in. Although I've been "out" in my columns for seven years, I figure that isn't the time or place to talk about my personal life.

But inside I take note. And what surprises me, every time, is how much I like the person I'm sitting across from. The religious folks I've encountered in my job are by far some of the nicest people I've ever met. They're not the rabid-right religious fanatics whom some in the gay community fear. They're just regular folks, trying to do the right thing.

So I'm even more puzzled by this gay-marriage issue. Most of the people behind the Florida Marriage Amendment that will be voted on next year are from the religious community - maybe even some of the folks I've interviewed.

I wonder whether they realize how mean-spirited this law could become.

On the surface, the amendment is bad enough. It reads: Inasmuch as marriage is the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife, no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized.

It's not meant, some proponents say, to abolish such benefits as health insurance for domestic partners. But it could.

A similar amendment, passed in Michigan in 2004, has done just that. By the end of this year, for example, the University of Michigan will be forced to stop providing same-sex domestic-partner benefits to its employees. (University administrators are trying to work around the law, however, because, as the associate vice president for human resources recently wrote, "health insurance is a benefit of vital importance to our faculty and staff.")

The amendment could have other unintended consequences. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida stated in a report that the Florida amendment could also result in loss of benefits for unmarried heterosexual couples and their children.

Just the possibility that some family could lose benefits stops my heart cold. The Tallahassee Democrat has provided domestic-partner benefits for more than five years. It's been a lifesaver for Terry, me and our three kids, particularly because Terry is self-employed. If she and one of the kids were kicked off my plan, she'd have to pay more than $700 a month to get covered - and that wouldn't include dental costs.

We're probably not in danger of losing the benefits, whether the amendment passes in Florida or not, because Gannett is a private corporation. (Typically, it's public institutions that are targeted.) And the folks at FAMU, TCC and FSU wouldn't be affected either - because the state never offered domestic-partner benefits in the first place.

But folks in other parts of Florida - who are already getting benefits - could be affected, including public employees in Broward and Monroe counties and ones in Gainesville, Key West, Miami Beach and West Palm Beach. And of course it could prevent public employers from adding domestic benefits in the future.

I know how important good benefits are. When I was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, I was fortunate to be covered under one of the best insurance policies in the country. I believe the care I got saved my life. I shudder to think of Terry's getting cancer and having only bare-bones health insurance because she couldn't be on mine.

Maybe the religious folks I talk with don't understand the harm the amendment could cause. Or maybe it's not as important to them as their religious convictions.

In either case, when they take their stance against gay marriage, I feel as if I've been kicked in the gut.


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