Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

More Perfect Unions

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

More Perfect Unions

Article excerpt

Profiles of couplehood in a defense-of-marriage world

Without a legal definition for their relationships, gay men and lesbians in the United States have been left to their own devices when it comes to setting the parameters for their partnerships. While many say government recognition could not change the nature of their commitment to their partners, the following three couples--two from the United States and one from Norway--say their experience in exchanging vows proves that marriage is about more than simple ceremony.

NICHOLAS BARTHOLD and STEVEN RIVERA

Nicholas Barthold and Steven Rivera consider themselves the gay Ward and June Cleaver. And if you spend any time with them, you can see why. Phone calls are punctuated by the sounds of their four children, and evenings in the couple's rural Pennsylvania home are spent discussing Little League and homework.

"We don't feel we're different from any other parents," Rivera says. "We have the same worries and hopes for our children."

But of course, in the eyes of the government, the family is different. While neighboring couples file joint tax returns and share medical benefits, Barthold and Rivera don't. "They fail to realize they have things we only dream of," Barthold says of his straight neighbors.

Despite the lack of legal recognition, they do their best to make a safe home for their four children: Justin, 7; Joan, 9; Thomas, 10; and Paul, 14.

Rivera became the children's legal guardian when their parents--Rivera's brother and sister-in-law--died of AIDS complications, in 1994 and 1996, respectively. Around the same time, he met Barthold while both were singing in the New York City Gay Men's Chorus. "It was a very tough time for me," Rivera says. "I never thought someone would want to share this life in turmoil."

But someone did. The men soon fell in love, moved in together, and then held a commitment ceremony. In November they broke new legal ground when they became the first same-sex couple in New York State (where they also maintain a home) to be granted joint legal guardianship of their children.

When gay marriage becomes legal, Barthold and Rivera say they will be the first in line. Until then they'll just continue living their own version of the American dream, with Barthold working as a music publisher and Rivera staying at home with the kids. "Anyone should be a family if they want to be," Barthold says.

JEANNE BARNETT and ELLIE CHARLTON

After 16 years in a committed relationship, Ellie Charlton and Jeanne Barnett of Sacramento didn't think anything could bring them closer together. But in January 1999, when the two were joined in a holy union before more than 1,000 guests and over 90 United Methodist ministers, they realized they were wrong.

The couple's ceremony, which also served as a protest against the United Methodist Church's ban on such unions (a church investigation of all participating ministers concluded in February with no charges filed), couldn't have been more public. But for Charlton and Barnett, it had extremely personal side effects.

"It changed our relationship," Charlton, 64, says today. "I didn't think it would."

Looking lovingly at her partner, the 69-year-old Barnett agrees. "I don't think you can put it into words," she says of the change, "but it's there."

The two met 18 years ago when Charlton offered emotional support to Barnett, who was just coming out. Two years later the women made a commitment to each other, exchanging rings but never holding a ceremony. "If we were going to have a service, we wanted to have it recognized publicly," says Barnett, who had long ago given up hope that the United Methodist Church would ever recognize gay and lesbian relationships. …

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