On Tuesday May 8, voters in North Carolina will go to the polls to decide who will represent their parties in general elections for President, Governor, and a host of less exciting but still important offices such as school boards and the like. Voters will also be asked to decide whether to add these words to the State's Constitution:
Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State. This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.
For reasons already explained, I believe these words (also known as "Amendment One") have the potential to open a most ugly can of worms. I recommend that voters reject Amendment One. The Amendment does not define marriage (that's already defined by statute): It prohibits the State, as well as city and county governments within North Carolina, from allowing or recognizing civil unions or domestic partnerships between same-sex couples, or for that matter opposite-sex couples who choose not to marry.
In the case of one couple, Gale and Elizabeth, it has the potential to bankrupt them. If Amendment One passes, it will leave Gale without health insurance (at least until ObamaCare's prohibition of coverage denial for preexisting conditions comes into effect, which may never happen). It will do so because they never considered, when Elizabeth's employer Durham County offered to provide health insurance coverage for domestic partners of its employees, that strangers living 200 miles away would one day have the opportunity to vote that coverage out of existence.
This is their story.
Gale and Elizabeth could be your neighbors, but they are mine. They're good neighbors: They don't yell and scream the way I do; They don't ignore the stop sign at the entrance to our street , as I do; They don't blast loud music at 2:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, as I often do. They're the nice ladies who walk their dog, a Siberian Husky, past the house at about 6:45 most mornings, driving my dogs insane and making me feel guilty that I'm barely capable of drinking my coffee because I was up until 2:00 a.m. yelling and screaming and blasting loud music and driving dangerously and neglecting my dogs.
I sat down with Gale and Elizabeth a couple of weeks ago to discuss what passage of Amendment One would mean to them, emotionally, legally, and otherwise.
Patrick: I'd like to thank you for agreeing to talk with me about yourselves. Could you tell our readers a little bit about who you are?
Elizabeth: I work for Durham County in [a department Patrick will not name because Elizabeth's job involves fundraising and public outreach].
Gale: I have a partnership in a small homebuilding company here in Durham.
Patrick: As a matter of fact, your company built my house, didn't it Gale?
Gale: All of the houses on this street, yes.
Patrick: And how long have you two been together?
Gale: It will be twenty-nine years on May 5.
Patrick: How did you meet?
Elizabeth: We met at AnotherThyme [a restaurant in Durham] at some progressive women's group meeting. I'd been attending for some time, and Gale showed up one day. We got to talking and hit it off, and we've been together 29 years since.
Gale: It was a storytelling conference, but I wasn't a gifted storyteller.
Patrick: What was Durham like in those days for lesbian and gay people? I would have been in high school back then, and my impression of Durham was that it was a pretty rough, sort of industrial town.
Elizabeth: Not at all. It was a university town, too. Depending on where you were from, it was a beacon in those days. I'd been out since 1980, and no one gave me any problems. I served on boards, vetted grants for [unnamed County agency], and worked with a group helping battered women. It was a far cry from Americus, Georgia, where I came from.
Gale: Yes, I remember when a friend's partner died back in 1983, and she was given family leave. That sort of thing wasn't uncommon here even in the 80s.
Patrick: Your friend was gay or lesbian, I take it?
Gale: Oh yes.
Patrick: You're a couple. Do you consider yourselves partners?
Gale: Yeah, we own our home, we've been together almost as long as some of the neighbors have been alive.
Elizabeth: We've done what we can. We've written wills. Gale is my beneficiary for retirement, life insurance, and vice versa. She's on my health insurance policy, vision, dental, you name it. We saw an attorney to arrange everything so it would be legally as close to marriage as we could get, power of attorney, living will and what have you.
Patrick: Why did you feel the need to do that?
Elizabeth: I still get down to see my mother in Georgia. I'd hate to get into an accident and have the hospital ignore Gale's decisions.
Patrick: Let's talk about insurance. Elizabeth, you're a county employee. Does Durham offer insurance benefits to lesbian and gay couples?
Elizabeth: It does. Most private employers in this state don't offer that sort of thing, so it's a good recruiting tool…
Patrick: To attract employees the County might not be able to afford otherwise?
Elizabeth: I think so, but Durham isn't the only one doing it. I know it's offered in Charlotte, and Greensboro and Chapel Hill.
Gale: I had my own health insurance before the County offered it, but the County rate was cheaper so we went with the group plan.
Patrick: Let's talk about Amendment One. If Amendment passes, what will happen to your health insurance, Gale?
Gale: You tell me.
Patrick: Touche! Well, as I read the Amendment, the County will have to stop offering any sort of domestic partnership benefits to any of its unmarried employees. Gale, if that happened, could you get health insurance now?
Gale: Probably not. Since I went on the County plan I've been diagnosed with a neurological disease. I control it with medication, and that's expensive, probably over a thousand a month. It could get worse. I haven't looked for another policy yet, and hope I won't have to, but I'm not sure I could get it with a preexisting condition.
Patrick: You couldn't get health insurance through your own company?
Gale: We have two employees, including me.
Elizabeth: I don't think so.
Patrick: It's rude to ask a lady her age, but I do it all the time at depositions. So how long would it be before you were eligible for Medicare, Gale?
Gale: Five years.
Patrick: Let's play a game. The people behind this Amendment, and I know a couple of them, would tell you that the best way to interpret a law is to use its plain meaning, just to apply the dictionary definition of every word in the text. The Amendment says: "Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State." What does that mean to you?
Elizabeth: That we're second class citizens.
Gale: That my government doesn't give a damn about me, and that it discriminates against us.
Patrick: Would either of you consider leaving North Carolina if the Amendment passed?
Elizabeth: We'd miss you all.
Gale: We've lived here [on my street] since the early 1990s. We're lucky to live a few doors from family and we've felt safe and loved by our neighbors as well. We had only lived here a couple years when Elizabeth and I were walking on Ninth Street and some guys yelled homophobic remarks at us. When we told Greg [the toughest guy in the neighborhood] about it he was livid and ready to go get them! And now, as we drive to and from our home, we see all the anti Amendment signs and again, we feel cared for and protected. We also read so many of you supporting Facebook postings. All in all, we know you all have our back!
Patrick: And on that note I'll close the interview.
I doubt many North Carolinians are undecided as to how they'll vote at this late date, but if any of them are reading this post, ask yourself: What is the purpose of laws? Why do we have them, and what distinguishes a good law from a bad law?
My own guiding principle is that laws are necessary evils. All laws restrict freedom in some fashion. All laws harm some subset of people within the body public, by punishing them for exercising their freedom, but sometimes that's justifiable. A good law is one that protects the public, or individuals who make up the public, from a discreet, identifiable harm, while doing as little damage as possible in the process.
By that measure, Amendment One is a dreadful law. I cannot perceive any harm that Amendment One will prevent or redress.
The proponents of Amendment One claim that it is intended to strengthen the honorable institution of marriage, to protect it from rogue judges who would dilute it by extending the privilege of marriage to gay and lesbian people.
I've been married, mostly happily, for twelve years. Amendment One will not strengthen my marriage in any way whatsoever. Likewise, if Amendment One does not pass, my marriage will not be weakened in any way whatsoever. And that's true for the entire State. If the Amendment does not pass, its absence will not cause a rash of divorces, nor of children growing up in broken homes. Not a single man or woman will go before a Judge claiming, "Your Honor, my marriage is irretrievably broken because the Constitution of the State of North Carolina does not define marriage as solely between one man and one woman."
Likewise, if Amendment One does pass, marriage counselors will not suddenly lose their jobs. No couple on the verge of a breakup will suddenly turn things around, finding new love because the Constitution now restricts marriage to heterosexuals.
If the Amendment does no good, does it do any harm? Ask Gale and Elizabeth, and other couples in their place. It absolutely does. Why would I vote for a law that harms my neighbor, but doesn't protect me from any harm whatsoever?
And why would you? Why would anyone vote for a law that does no good, but only harm?
Vote against Amendment One.