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Different Sides of the Aisle

Same-Sex Marriage Debate Raging not Just in Massachusetts and California

Frank Klein
We are Family: Gita Deane (pictured, center) and Lisa Polyak (pictured, right) play scrabble with their children in the living room of their baltimore home.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 2/25/2004

In a little white Colonial in a quiet Baltimore neighborhood, a typical family scene unfolds: Children's shoes sit piled neatly by the door, photo albums pack a bookshelf , and two young girls play downstairs while their parents prepare dinner. It's a picture-perfect nuclear family, except that, as far as Maryland and the majority of the United States is concerned, this family doesn't exist. That's because both parents are women, and same-sex marriage is not legal in Maryland. So in the eyes of the law, Lisa Polyak and Gita Deane, who have two little girls ages 4 and 7, are nothing more than roommates.

"I don't like the social stigma of us having this legal limbo status to who we are," Polyak says.

Same-sex marriage has been the subject of growing debate in the United States, as the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled it legal in its own state last November. More recently, the city of San Francisco has married more than 3,000 same-sex couples since Feb. 12, despite the fact that California law does not condone it. And the subject has also become a hot topic in Maryland recently. Despite the fact that state law already defines a marriage as legal only between a man and a woman, two bills are being considered in the Maryland House of Delegates that seek to solidify marriage as a purely heterosexual institution. One would explicitly declare "that marriages between individuals of the same sex are against the public policy of this State," insuring that Maryland would not have to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states. The other bill calls for an amendment to the Maryland Constitution limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. Both bills will be debated at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, Feb. 25.

For Polyak and Deane, this is more than a political debate: It's a deeply personal issue that has affected their lives for the 23 years they've been together--especially since their daughters were born.

"There are so many [rights] that come to you when that marriage decree is rendered because the government believes it's a fundamental interest to protect families, to help them to flourish and grow," Polyak says. "That's all we want. We just want our family to have access to the same protections that other families have access to, because we want our kids to grow up safe and healthy."

To get this point across, Polyak and Deane will tell their story at a town hall meeting on gay marriage on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 26. The event is being sponsored by Equality Maryland, a nonprofit civil-rights organization that serves the gay and transgender community.

Polyak and Deane met at Trinity College in Washington, D.C., in 1979 and fell in love. They both attended graduate school in Baltimore, but when Deane graduated in 1986 a problem arose. Deane was born in India and was living in America on a student visa. Two months after she graduated, that visa expired. She received a deportation notice giving her 30 days to leave the country, and the women were devastated. While heterosexual couples in similar situations would only have to marry to stay together, as lesbians they didn't have that option. Instead, they had to find an employer to sponsor Deane and a lawyer willing to represent her, despite the fact that they had little money to spend. In order to finalize her permanent-resident status, Deane had to fly back to India, get approval from the U.S. embassy there, and then return. When Deane left, she and Polyak had no way of knowing for sure whether she would be permitted to return. The women sobbed as Deane got on the plane.

"You never know what could come up or what they might find out," Deane remembers. "Or [if] they would find out I was lesbian and that would be grounds for denial, because one of the questions in the forms was 'Have you ever engaged in perverted sexual practices' or something. And of course we know what they're asking. It was very, very scary."

It took Deane three years to get a green card. And five years later, in 1994, she naturalized. The whole ordeal cost more than $10,000.

"It seems so unfair," Polyak says. "We have a friend who recently married a man who's a citizen of Spain, and they got married and he obtained his green card and it cost them $700."

Being unable to marry also caused complications when the couple decided to have children. They had their daughters through artificial insemination; Polyak carried the older girl, and Deane carried the younger one. The couple wanted to ensure that their children would be legally provided for and that each parent would have equal rights to the children; to do so, Polyak and Deane had to adopt one another's biological children. Married couples automatically get parental rights to children born through artificial insemination, regardless of whether the child is biologically related to them. The couple also had to draw up a legal document just to make sure that Polyak could make medical decisions for Deane if something went amiss during her delivery.

Even buying a house together became a struggle. "One of us would have preferred to stay home and be the full-time caretaker of our children, but that was never an option," Polyak say, because their mortgage agreement stipulated that each had to have the means to be financially responsible for the mortgage.

They can't file joint tax returns. Deane is not covered by Polyak's family health insurance policy, and if one of the women dies, the other won't be entitled to her Social Security benefits or even be able to roll over her 401(k).

Marriage in the United States comes with more than 1,000 federal benefits, and while some of those can be obtained through costly and complicated legal maneuvering, many are totally out of reach for same-sex couples.

"I feel an urgency because of my children," Deane says. "Their quality of life would change so drastically if one of us got sick or died."

"We are so lucky and privileged, and still for us it's a struggle," Polyak agrees. "I can't imagine what it's like for somebody with less resources."

According to Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland, gay couples are at a disadvantage to heterosexual couples because of restrictive marriage laws.

"Any individual who says you can obtain the rights and benefits of marriage through seeing a lawyer is either stupid or lying," he says.

Furmansky says that "civil unions"--which some states are contemplating offering gay couples in lieu of actual marriages--are no substitute partly because they are only binding in the state in which they are issued.

"Can you imagine what it's like for a child who has a legalized relationship with both parents in one state, and then the minute they drive across the state line that child is illegitimate?" Furmansky asks.

Despite being one of just 12 states that has not enacted a Defense of Marriage Act (which gives a state the right under the federal Defense of Marriage Act to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages), gay marriages are not legal in Maryland because the Maryland Family Code states that "only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid." Still, state Del. Charles Boutin (R-Harford and Cecil counties), who sponsored the bill that would amend the Maryland Constitution to prevent same-sex marriage from becoming legal here, feels the state needs to solidify its position on the issue.

"I felt that the best way to do this is to merely reaffirm the current law into the constitution," says Boutin, whose bill, if passed, would be put before voters in a referendum on Election Day 2004, Nov. 2. "I want to take the final decision away from 141 people [in the General Assembly] and I want to give that decision to the voters of Maryland."

Furmansky says he finds Boutin's argument insulting. "I don't think people's civil rights should be up for a popular vote," he says.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) has come out against gay marriage, promising to veto any attempts to legalize it in the state. Maryland Democratic Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes voted in favor of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. And there are a number of outspoken opponents to gay marriage in Annapolis. One of the most vocal has been Del. Emmett Burns (D-Baltimore County), who said in a November Washington Post article, "I don't want to live next to people who have a same-sex relationship and have children, and have my children playing with them."

It's the kind of argument that Deane and Polyak can't help but take personally.

"You know what the opposite viewpoint is?" Polyak asks. "It's discrimination."

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