With This Ring
Virginia Politicians Face Off Over the Legal Rights of Gay Partners
Weekly, July 31, 2001
By John Toivonen, Style Weekly
When Randy Starnes met Darrell Fitzgerald in January 2001, he knew he had
met the man he wanted to live with for the rest of his life. Fitzgerald felt
the same way.
"Randy was the first man I could see as an old man sitting next to me
on the porch in a rocking chair," Fitzgerald says.
"The fact that his faith is strong attracted me to him," says
Starnes, who is an organist at Metropolitan Community Church of Richmond.
Six months later, they took the plunge. "One day I said, Will you
marry me?" Starnes says. "And he said yes."
So in a ceremony this June at the Metropolitan Community Church, Starnes
and Fitzgerald, wearing gray suits, exchanged rings and vows of commitment in
front of family and friends.
Starnes and Fitzgerald took part in a church service without the automatic
legal bonds created by heterosexual marriages. Nonetheless, such ceremonies
are increasingly popular. Since the Metropolitan Community Church opened its
doors in 1968, its pastors have performed scores of holy union ceremonies.
Those ceremonies are part of a push for legally recognized unions between
gay partners so-called civil unions.
And in an election year, this most personal of subjects has been pulled
During the Democratic Partys June debate for lieutenant-governor
candidates, Richmond Mayor Tim Kaine stated his support for "civil
benefits" for gay couples, which would allow gay couples to file joint
tax returns, receive insurance benefits and make financial decisions for each
other just like married couples.
That was widely viewed as support for gay legal unions. Kaines running
mate, Mark Warner, said he didnt agree with Kaine on the issue.
Lately, however, Kaine seems to have taken a different position.
"I think the institution of marriage is fine. I dont believe we
need to create an alternative," Kaine tells Style. "Gays and
lesbians should not be discriminated against in housing, or employment. When
the question came up in the debate I said I support changing the state
discrimination laws to [include gays]."
Larry Sabato, a political pundit at the University of Virginia, describes
that as a politically motivated change. "Hes realized its an issue
that sells in a liberal primary, but doesnt sell in a broad-based general
election," Sabato says. "But whatever you say later, youre stuck
with your first position. .
"There is not a mother lode of votes from people for gay unions,"
Sabato continues. And in changing his position, Kaine "might end up
alienating both sides."
Should the issue even be in politics? Many gay couples believe it has to
be. They argue that they dont receive the same benefits as married
heterosexual couples. They point to issues such as insurance, handling the
finances of an ill partner, and hospital visitation rights as evidence of
While gay civil unions are high on the radar for gay activists, they havent
gotten much traction politically. Last year, left-leaning California passed
with 61 percent of the vote a ballot initiative blocking gay marriage.
In 1996 Congress easily passed the Defense of Marriage Act, a law that allows
states to not recognize gay marriages created in other states. The Virginia
General Assembly passed its own bill blocking gay marriage in 1997.
Are legally recognized gay marriages likely to be coming to Virginia?
Sabato doesnt think so - the state is too conservative, he says.
Republican lieutenant-governor candidate Jay Katzen agrees. "If
California isnt ready for gay marriage," Katzen says, "then you
know Virginia isnt."
And Katzen gleefully tackles Kaine on the issue. "I have met Virginian
after Virginian who is disturbed by his [Kaines] positions," Katzen
Katzen also opposes lifting the law prohibiting sodomy from the books
because he believes that it serves as a deterrent to dangerous behavior.
Virginia is one of 17 states that still have laws prohibiting sodomy. Arizona
repealed its law this year.
"AIDS is the product, sadly, in most cases of a choice that people
have made," Katzen says. "We recognize that homosexuality is a
choice. It s a lifestyle with public-health consequences."
Katzen calls tearing up the sodomy law a step towards gay marriage.
"Its an effort is to begin the process of laying the framework for gay
marriage," Katzen says.
Kaine agrees the sodomy laws shouldnt be removed. But he says that s
because theyre irrelevant and unenforced in private situations.
"Theyre not a priority," Kaine says. "I dont know if
theyre being used."
Some say creating a legally recognized gay marriage is unnecessary. Gay
couples "can sign power of attorney, designate wills and sign hospital
visitation rights," says Bob Knight, a specialist on domestic law with
the Concerned Women for America, a conservative Christian womens group.
"We did a survey and couldnt find a single hospital that turned away a
partner. A civil union is not needed for legal protection."
Perhaps. Nonetheless, many gays have made their way to Vermont to take part
in civil unions. According to a report done by the Catholic University of
America, 28 people have traveled to Vermont from Virginia to certify their
Lisa Belongia, who in 1997 held a holy-union ceremony with her partner,
Tina Webb, at Metropolitan Community Church, strongly argues that gays should
be allowed to have legal marriages just like heterosexuals. She understands,
she says, that her marriage ceremony had political implications: She has
publicly declared her intention to live openly with a woman.
But Belongia says she wont be satisfied until the state recognizes her
relationship: "Until we can do the same thing [marry], it wont be
Until that happens, Randy Starnes and Darrell Fitzgerald are relying on
legal documents that they have signed giving each other the same rights and
privileges of married heterosexuals. They keep legal papers in their cars
stating each others right to make critical decisions for the other. But
they say they are concerned that those agreements could be thwarted.
"I dont care what the government says," Starnes says. "I
know that he and I are married."
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