'Legal segregation' haunts many

For Brian Rater, it isn’t about health benefits or any legal entitlement. For him and his partner, Brendan Dennehy, it’s about sitting at the back of the bus.

Rater hopes New Hampshire will pass a gay-marriage law so that he and Dennehy can, as he describes, stop feeling “separate but equal” through their current status in a civil union.

“Really, it has been an issue of legal segregation and not about benefits,” Rater said.

“It’s like the 1960s and segregated busing. You had whites in the front of the bus and blacks in the back. They had access to the same services, but what was offensive was the segregation. That’s really the way it is with civil unions.”

Rater and Dennehy, who live in Brookline, married in Montreal in November 2007. In New Hampshire, the marriage is recognized as a civil union.

“Legally speaking, there is really no difference between the two of them,” Rater said.

Dennehy and Rater haven’t been denied any sort of benefit or faced overt discrimination because of their civil union status, Rater said. Instead, their objection stems from not being recognized on an equal level with married couples, even if that disparity boils down to semantics, he said.

“It’s been specifically about respect and treatment of people – that’s separate from the legal rights and responsibility issues,” Rater said. “It’s made it a tough fight for us. It really is about a name change, and it is profound.”

Gov. John Lynch said he would sign the gay-marriage bill into law if legislators rewrite it to include greater protection for churches and religious organizations if they choose to not marry gay couples.

Having equal status with married couples on just the basis of a word also matters to the Rev. Leeanne Tagert. But she also feels discrimination as one half of a civil union couple, and she wants greater legal recognition and protections.

The Concord resident and her partner of 19 years, Emily Geoghegan, were united in a civil union on Jan. 1, 2008 – the day New Hampshire legalized the process for gays and lesbians.

But since that day, Tagert has learned that a couple in a civil union does lack certain entitlements and protections afforded married couples, she said.

There are differences in state taxes on capital gains and property, and state employees in a civil union have to pay taxes on health insurance for their partners and children, whereas those in a marriage do not, she said.

And, like Rater, Tagert believes the federal government will have to recognize the legal coupling of gay and lesbian couples when more states legalize gay marriage.

“I’ve been paying to Social Security since I was 15 years old,” Tagert said. “I’m now 51. If I die, no one gets my benefits. It feels really unfair. It’s one of the thousand legal benefits of legal marriage.”

Tagert said she’s unsure if the social benefits of marriage over a civil union is as important as legal rights. But as Rater noted, Tagert does find the semantic distinction between a civil union and marriage a difficult hurdle.

“When a straight couple says, ‘We’re married,’ I would struggle for language to say we’re married,” Tagert said. “I feel like spiritually, we’ve been married for 19 years, but it’s hard to say. What do you say? ‘We got civil unioned’?”

Tagert, a minister with the United Church of Christ in Concord, has performed civil union ceremonies. After the state legalized the practice, it initially felt “wonderful,” she said. But with her own experience and those of others, she said she recognized how it still “falls short.”

“I don’t have the same legal protections my neighbors have,” Tagert said. “That piece of it is so oppressive and unfair and unsafe. The legal inequality creates a social inequality.”

As on the day that the civil union measure went on the books, Tagert said she and Geoghegan would be the first in line to be married if the bill becomes law.

Rater said he isn’t sure if his marriage in Montreal will be recognized as marriage in New Hampshire should the law pass. If it isn’t, they will repeat the ceremony here.

“We would love to get a New Hampshire marriage license,” Rater said. “I would love to frame that.”