Monday, July 11, 2011

For Richer, For Poorer. In Sickness and in Health.

Gene Balas and Carlos Morales are one of the 18,000 couples married during the short span of time that same-sex marriage was legal in the state of California.  Sadly, like so many married couples in these difficult economic times, after bouts of both serious illness and unemployment, the couple were forced to file for bankruptcy.  Then came the news that, because their marriage was not recognized federally, they would not be able to file jointly. 

They took their case to court and won, but an appeal from the House and DoJ seemed likely. Gene and Carlos and their lawyers were ready to take the fight all the way up to the supreme court.

And then the news that, in a major policy shift, the US government would not contest joint bankruptcies of married same-sex couples.  Truly incredible news - Gene and Carlos are secure in their case, and in turn, this  case has paved the way for other married same-sex couple to have this same right. 

But marriage for this couple didn't start out as a political started out, the way marriages do, with love, soulmates, a connection.

Gene Balas speaks out for the first time, and we are so honored to have him share his personal reflections here on the PFLAG National blog:
Love is universal, as is the instinctual desire – and even need – for a human to form a spiritual and emotional bond with another person.  The institution of marriage spans millennia, reaches across continents and cultures, religion and race.  It is an intrinsic part of what makes us human; we are more alike than we are different, despite what some may attempt to argue.  And same-sex couples are no different than their opposite-sex brethren in the innate desire to utter those words, “For better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or health, till death do you part,” that bind one life to another life.

So why then, are there those who still believe that same-sex couples should not have that basic of human rights to form bonds recognized by society, perhaps viewing our relationships as less-than-equal? And why, at the most basic level, is the institution of matrimony so essential?  There are myriad considerations in answering those complex questions.  Perhaps I could address the practical aspects of marriage, such as the 1,049 legal considerations that come with marriage, according to the government’s General Accounting Office, including benefits such as hospital visitation rights, inheritance and pension survivor benefits, and the right to file taxes jointly.  Or perhaps I might address the religious issues that some raise by pointing out we live in a pluralistic society whose roots are founded on the separation of church and state.  And I could also point out to those who argue that marriage is for child rearing that the infertile are allowed to marry and the elderly are not forced to divorce.

These are all valid considerations, of course, but they aren’t the most fundamental.  No, the real reason for same sex marriage is exactly the same as that for any other marriage.  And that is love.  Love isn’t something that can be quantified – it is even hard to define, but one knows it when one feels it.  Perhaps the best way of exploring that most basic reason for any marriage – love – is to demonstrate by means of example.  Allow me, then, to tell you the story of my husband, Carlos, and me.

The attraction when I met Carlos on Labor Day weekend in 2005 was instant.  It transcended the mere physical to encompass his soul, heart and mind.  I had found a soulmate, and he in me.  Our relationship progressed quickly, and in January 2006, we moved in together into a new apartment, signing the lease jointly.  Importantly, we made a commitment to each other, and in May 2006, we obtained our domestic partnership in New Jersey and exchanged rings in a simple ceremony at City Hall.  We got joint checking and savings accounts and named each other in our life insurance policies as beneficiaries.

When most couples make those vows, “for better or worse, sickness or health, richer or poorer,” they perhaps don’t expect to be put to the test right away.  However, Carlos and I seemed to find ourselves facing the tribulations of health problems almost immediately, as we had three hospitalizations between the two of us within just a few months of our decision to unite our lives.  We were by each other’s side in the hospital, and Carlos was vital to my recovery.  I gave him power to make medical decisions for me, should I not be able, and we drafted wills to name each other as our beneficiary.  There was no doubt that Carlos and I took the vows “in sickness and in health” seriously.

We then had a cross country move from New Jersey to Los Angeles in July 2006 so that I could take a new job.  Not long after, Carlos’ mother, who lived in Los Angeles, fell ill and was hospitalized for several months before passing away, during which period Carlos spent much of his time by her side in the hospital.  I helped make the funeral arrangements, offering both emotional and practical support during a very difficult period for Carlos.  In the meantime, however, during our first year in Los Angeles, Carlos had been unable to work during the period that he needed to tend to his mother, and our debts began to mount.  “Richer” was gradually becoming “poorer,” even as our health had recovered.

In 2008, California allowed, for a period of time, same -marriage.  We jumped at the chance, even though we had gotten California domestic partnership after moving to Los Angeles, and were married in the church of which I was Treasurer and on the Board of Directors.  That day, on the Labor Day weekend in 2008, was one of the happiest days of our time together.

That interim period of tranquility was not to last, however, and in March of 2009, I lost my job when my company laid off 1000 people. Luckily, I was – and still am – covered under Carlos’ health insurance, as it would be extremely expensive to buy coverage on my own.  I began a job search lasting over a year that threatened to take us to what seemed like anywhere in the country, including many places which did not recognize our relationship and where we had no rights as a couple.  Our hospital stays reminded us just how important it is to have the right to make medical decisions for each other, to have hospital visitation rights, be covered under each other’s health insurance plans and, in a reminder of the inevitable, that we needed to be certain we would have no estate planning problems.

The stress of my unemployment and job search affected Carlos adversely, and he went on disability for four months before returning to work. Since then, I found a new job, but now earn 80% less than what I used to make in finance. As if tempting fate with our vows, we then suddenly became much poorer, and we ultimately filed for bankruptcy.  Still, Carlos reminded me that he didn’t marry me for my money.  We’ve adapted to a very different lifestyle than we had when we first met, but that is hardly relevant to the main point: we have each other, and that by far is the most important thing to us.
With all the trials and tribulations that have befallen us – the same that have befallen millions of families across our country during these difficult economic times – Carlos and my marriage has withstood the crucible of life, with our bonds forged as in steel and symbolized by our gold rings. Far from becoming worse, our relationship has withstood these tests and has become better. We cannot imagine that we are anything other than a married couple like any other, committed to each other for the rest of our lives.  Why then, does the federal government insist that our marriage does not count, as if we are mere roommates?  After years of shared hardship together, that is the most hurtful element of all.