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Civil-union law a victory for trans community as well
by Joseph Erbentraut
2011-06-15

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For Chicagoan Vicki Byard, June 16 is a day she is anticipating gleefully. That day, she and her partner have planned to mark their new civil union before family and friends.

The union, Byard said, is particularly meaningful to her family because, as a trans-identified couple, she and her partner have struggled with a great deal of stigma from both inside and outside of the LGBT community. With their new legal recognition arrives a moment the couple, together for two years and the parents of two children ( Kate, 11, and Alex, 14 ) who Byard adopted as newborns, can't wait to celebrate.

"To us, it's a really pivotal celebratory time," she told Windy City Times. "I feel that my family will be united in a way I've never had in my entire life to this point."

Yet, the moment is also bittersweet as Byard has felt frustration with the fact that little media coverage of the Illinois civil union victory has featured families that "look like hers," as she explained.

While her partner, Eli, identifies as a transgender man and she as a cisgender woman, qualifying them in the eyes of the law as a heterosexual or different-sex couple, they do not identify with that designation themselves. Their discomfort with being "lumped in" with heterosexual couples made them hesitant to marry. A civil union represents the achievement of the legal recognition they need without the baggage of a categorization that felt disingenuous, she added.

"Marriage didn't feel entirely comfortable because we're a trans-identified family and it felt like we were somehow finding a loophole," Byard said. "We would be taking advantage of certain sorts of rights others in the LGBT community couldn't have. For us, that wasn't a choice we would consider."

The North Park couple's unique identity has left them in a bit of a no-man's land that was most recently reflected when Byard was signing the couple up for the Equality Illinois- and Lambda Legal-sponsored Civil Union Tracker. The tracker, she said, presented no opportunity to differentiate her family from a heterosexual, non-trans-identified one. Neither organization responded to her e-mail messages expressing concern over what she considered to be an oversight.

"There are aspects of our live every single day that are impacted by the fact that we're a trans-identified family," she said. "It was incredibly disheartening to see even organizations that have worked very hard for this civil union law not realize that there are more families impacted by the law than solely those identifying as either same-sex or heterosexual couples. We shouldn't be overlooked."

Representatives from both organizations defended their "tracker," created so that newly civil-unionized couples could more easily access legal resources should they encounter any hassles, but acknowledged that feelings of being excluded from broader LGBT victories can be all too common within the community.

This victory is, indeed, a significant moment for trans Illinoisans in opening the door for legal recognition of queer couples of all types, said M. Dru Levasseur, Lambda Legal transgender rights attorney.

"We are always fighting for people to have the most rights they can have and, for trans people, we want their gender identity to be respected at the same time," Levasseur told Windy City Times. "The bottom line is we all benefit from marriage equality."

Trans couples sometimes find themselves in legally precarious positions where recognition is either incomplete, fleeting or not there at all, particularly in situations where one partner within a heterosexual marriage transitions, drawing that marriage into a legal gray area due to the Defense of Marriage Act.

While some judges who have encountered the issue in court have both respected a trans person's gender identity and relationship, that has often not been the case in states lacking marriage equality for LGBT persons, as evidenced in the case of Nikki Araguz, the trans widow of a firefighter. Following his death, his family sued Araguz in an attempt to block her from receiving her late husband Thomas' death benefits. A Texas judge ruled last month that, indeed, their marriage was invalid because Araguz is a trans woman.

Despite the struggles of some, others in the trans community simply do not identify with the issue of marriage, which appears connected to a certain invisibility when it comes to conversations of marriage equality. Michael Silverman, executive director of the New York-based Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, noted the organizational messaging around the Empire State's campaign for marriage equality has largely been painted as an LGB issue, a fact he finds troubling.

"There's an overarching question we often see in the trans community concerning where we are reflected in the larger LGBT community and since the marriage equality debate is seeming to be the most attention-getting debate in the community these days, it can be become a focal point for that feeling," Silverman said. "It raises the question if we are missing a major opportunity to talk about trans people and how their families are just like anyone else's family by not including trans voices in the marriage equality discussion."

"But ultimately we rise and fall together," he added.

In addition to their civil-union ceremony, they will also be celebrating son Alex's eight-grade graduation before their friends and family the same weekend.


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