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Jewish World Review July 27, 2004 / 9 Menachem-Av, 5764

Julia Gorin

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The Other Precedent: Gay Marriage and the Non-Widows of 9/11 | Those worried that Massachusetts' decision legalizing gay marriage will set a precedent for redefining and devaluing marriage should know that the precedent has already been set. It was done two years ago by the federal Victim Compensation Fund in answer to demands made by the non-widows of 9/11.

In contrast to the widows of 9/11, who married the men they were living with and raising children with, after the federal government announced that it would be issuing awards to victims' families, the non-widows came forward to make their cases.

Rather than live with their irresponsible choices and get less money for the family (children of victims were to recover damages regardless of their parents' marital status), they weren't too embarrassed to go in front of the cameras and stake their claims to what was essentially a $6 billion bonus for victims by taxpayers on top of the more than $3 billion raised for them privately. Specifically, it meant a $1.5 million payday for a spouse. Some families even filed a lawsuit against the fund, alleging, among other things, that it "discriminated against" unmarried partners. Rather than learning a lesson that convention is convention for a reason and that perhaps they should marry the next person they decide to make babies with, now their children will never have to learn that lesson either.

Because today, instead of bucking convention and living with the unforeseeable consequences that decision may bring, we buck convention then balk at society when it doesn't conventionalize the unconventional. Today's non-conformists expect society to conform to them.

The unmarried heterosexual partners of 9/11 paved an immediate road to a direct precedent for the current battle to redefine marriage, when the lesbian partner of civilian army employee Sheila Hein, murdered in the Pentagon that day, was awarded more than half a million dollars. Sure enough, the move to award Hein's partner was hailed by gay activists, including the attorney for the surviving partner, who said, "This is a huge step forward for the federal government…The government recognized her position was similar to that of a spouse."

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Prior to the Hein payout, Human Rights Campaign Spokesman David Smith said, "The horrendous events of September 11 dramatically showed how the lack of legal recognition of gay families leaves them vulnerable in times of tragedy." Meanwhile, the unwed heterosexual couples of 9/11 voluntarily left their families vulnerable in times of tragedy, putting partners in the position of having to publicly describe the day-to-day lives they led with their non-husband or non-wife, the role each filled, and how their responsibilities and incomes were shared, in an attempt to convince the hearing examiners that their relationship was identical to a spousal one.

Why people would work against themselves in this way, and why they would put themselves in a position to explain to the kids why Daddy doesn't want to marry Mommy or vice versa, may be mysterious to some, but not to Millie Cabrera, whose plight was highlighted on "Eyewitness News Extra" during the hubbub over the fund disbursement.

As a bank teller, Cabrera makes a third of what Frank Cheko--the man she'd been living with--made as a vice president at Fiduciary Trust in Tower Two before he perished there. They had kids and a mortgage together but not a marriage certificate.

"We do everything that a normal family does," Cabrera said. "In our eyes we were husband and wife. We were like, 'We don't need a piece of paper, we don't need a ceremony.'"

If that was her judgment, today Cabrera should be kicking herself instead of counting her cash. Not only did the federal victim fund pay domestic partners on par with spouses, but Cabrera also got free representation from Shearman and Sterling, which recognized that hers was a precedent-setting case.

Gary Krupa, a non-widower in the same boat as Cabrera, was also featured on the program. He "lived together and shared the household expenses" with his partner, Wendy Wakeford, who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. He scoffed, "Just because we didn't have a legal document that would have made us married, we can't be looked upon like spouses."

Precisely. People who feel that marriage is not vital to their family life should be prepared to skip the perks society offers with it. Marriage was designed to provide a secure environment for children, as well as long-term security for the woman who bears a man those children. It also facilitates handling almost anything that can happen to a family.

Before thumbing one's nose at convention, one had better make sure he or she understands why it's convention. What may seem unforeseeable to an individual is hindsight to modern society, which has the benefit of centuries of society-building leading up to its current state of evolution.

Many say people should live as they want, as long as no one gets hurt. But it's time to stop pretending that the choices individuals make don't affect others. When the federal victim fund bent to domestic partners demanding that the rules change, it created the potential for government-supported programs like social security and worker's compensation to eventually follow suit. When these developments one day lead to employers becoming obligated to recognize and subsidize domestic partners, the employers may decide to simply curtail benefits for everyone. Witness the hurt.

The non-widows and non-widowers of 9/11 failed the character test that now stands before the gay community. Both are opposite sides of the same coin, one minimizing marriage by rejecting it then demanding equality before the law, the other by hijacking it to demand equality before the law. Gays should do what the straight domestic partners of 9/11 did not and, rather than seek affirmation from society, set self-interest aside for the benefit of the many over the few. It is the more heroic course.

As Katharine Lee Bates, the lesbian author of "America The Beautiful," cautions in her lyrics:

America! America!
G-d mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

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JWR contributor Julia Gorin tours with Right Stuff Comedy and performs in the monthly New York-based show Republican Riot. Send your comments by clicking here.

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© 2004, Julia Gorin