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Civil unions: Halfway through the first year
News feature posted Dec. 9, 2011, special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Zen Vuong

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On Oct. 21, Martha Fourt and Patricia Benjamin joined the 129 Rogers Park residents who have tied the knot in the six months since Illinois sanctioned civil unions. ( Note: The author's original assignment involved a look into couples in Rogers Park, which is why this area is spotlighted in this report. )

"I had very mixed feelings about the whole concept of civil unions because I think it's second-class status compared to marriage," said Fourt, 56, who has been living with her partner for 11 years. "But once it became the law in Illinois, it seemed crazy not to take advantage of it."

About 30 relatives and friends watched the pair exchange vows and silver wedding bands under a chuppah and stomp on glass at Or Chadash, a synagogue in neighboring Edgewater.

More than 1,800 Cook County couples have been issued licenses. In theory civil unions offer all the legal benefits, protections and responsibilities of marriage. Only six states recognize them: California, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington.

Approximately half of the 129 Rogers Park residents who are now in a civil union rushed to the county clerk's office soon after it became law June 1. It was then 9.3 percent in July, 15.5 percent in August, 10.1 percent in September, 7 percent in October and 7.8 percent in November.

Fourt and Benjamin deliberated with their attorney before getting hitched. Although the couple already had wills as well as powers of attorney for health care and finances, Fourt said, "there were certain advantages, especially around end-of-life issues such as inheritance, that would be a lot more protected."

Civil unions grant partners the right to sue for wrongful death and the right to inherit everything in the absence of a will. They offer automatic hospital visitation rights and medical decision-making authority.

Married people automatically can file their income-tax returns jointly. Despite civil unions granting the same state benefits, the Department of Revenue only recently issued guidelines allowing same-sex partners to file 2012 state income tax returns together.

The "newly unioned" are cautious when they travel. They make sure to carry all their paperwork and their civil-union contractd after the county clerk returns it.

"From now on, when we travel, I want to take a copy of the certificate with us, just in the hopes that they'll recognize it even though their laws say they don't have to," Fourt said in reference to the 29 states that do not acknowledge any kind of marriage equality rights. Seven states allow same-sex matrimony as opposed to civil unions; others allow varying levels of protection for domestic partnerships.

Benjamin and Fourt want these safeguards in case one of them is injured, becomes ill or dies while on a trip.

Since the June influx, people living in Rogers Park applied for, on average, 13 civil unions per month. Three straight couples in Rogers Park and 135 in Cook County opted for this alternative rather than marriage.

Because life partnerships are not federally recognized, parents who decide to get one could escape reclassification when their children apply for financial aid. They may also retain separation benefits from a previous marriage but still formalize their new love.

When obtaining health care for their significant other, "unioned" people receive workplace state tax exemptions. The federal government, on the other hand, provides no spousal employment benefits, meaning it taxes income used for a partner's health care.

Lack of national acceptance can make civil unions unappealing. Brian Brabson, 33, has dated his boyfriend for five years and is ready for marriage, not a civil union. "It almost feels like a cheapened version of marriage," Brabson said. "I'd personally just kinda want to wait for the real thing."

The Rev. Deborah Paton, 52, said she understood why some people might feel dissatisfied with sanctioned partnerships. "Marriage goes beyond civil rights," she said. "It's God's recognition and blessing, God's calling of us to be in a relationship. When people make those, they sense the commitment goes further."

Although not granted federally recognized wedlock, Benjamin, 64, said she has experienced a "huge, huge change." Her relationship now has "more consequence." She has had relationships that lasted eight and 13 years, but "when they ended, they just ended," she said. "We had an agreement, and we just walked away. But now there's this legal thing where you need to get a divorce."

"We're not young people just falling in love and getting married," Benjamin said. Looking back on her one month of being "unionized," she said, "We were more cautious. We could see the implications."

Paton said civil unions make a deep bond sound like a "business partnership." A Presbyterian pastor for 25 years, she said she hopes marriage will one day be acceptable for anyone who wants it. Her denomination accepts same-sex ministers: Some of its clergy are battling to change marriage from a covenant between "one man and one woman" to between "two people."

Other Christian faiths are more conservative. St. Paul's Church by-the-Lake, an Episcopal Church, declined to comment on the six-month anniversary of civil unions.

The Cook County clerk only tracks the number of licenses issued. Some people request one but never have a ceremony or return the signed certificate to the county clerk, so it becomes void in 60 days.

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