Kevin Riordan: Plaintiffs' take: 'Civil unions don't work'

Marcye Nicholson-McFadden (right) plays with Teverico Barack, son of Erica (left) and Tevonda Bradshaw (center).
Marcye Nicholson-McFadden (right) plays with Teverico Barack, son of Erica (left) and Tevonda Bradshaw (center). (MJ SHEAR / Associated Press)
Posted: June 30, 2011

The clunky words civil union can't do justice to the bond between Karen and Marcye Nicholson-McFadden.

Together for 21 years and raising two children, the women are married in every sense . . . but one.

"The words matter," says Karen, 45, an executive recruiter who lives in Monmouth County. "Marriage matters."

The Nicholson-McFaddens are among seven same-sex couples fighting to enable New Jerseyans like myself to legally marry whom we love.

"If this isn't a marriage," said Louise Walpin, a mother of four who's been partnered with Marsha Shapiro for 21 years, "then I don't know what is."

Lambda Legal is suing the State of New Jersey on behalf of seven couples, their children, and the Garden State Equality organization. The national gay-rights litigator describes civil unions as an "inferior . . . separate and inherently unequal" status that violates the constitutional rights of same-sex couples.

Civil unions, a rather bloodless designation that confuses many and satisfies few, were the result of a 2006 state Supreme Court ruling. A legislative effort to secure civil marriage for gay couples failed last year.

"There is simply no way to give same-sex couples equality, except through marriage equality," said Steve Goldstein, chief executive officer of Garden State Equality. "Civil unions don't work."

During a news conference in Trenton on Wednesday, plaintiffs described what it's like to try to convince a civil servant that, yes, this is my spouse and, yes, this is our child.

A piece of paper saying the two of you are civil-unionized?

What's that?

Says who?

Sometimes the difficulties hurt more than they do at other times. Like when a funeral director handling arrangements for the son of Monmouth County residents Shapiro and Walpin, who have been together 37 years, was bewildered.

Or when Tevonda Bradshaw was in labor with the son she is raising with her partner, Erica. The staff asked for health-care proxies and power-of-attorney agreements - stuff unlikely to be required of a heterosexual couple, particularly one with a soon-to-be mother on the delivery table.

"To us, we're married," said Erica, a 36-year-old actress. "We're a family, we're raising our son, and the confusion about civil unions makes it harder."

Talk is easy.

In a radio interview Tuesday, Chris "I'm Not a Fan of Gay Marriage" Christie said same-sex couples should not be deprived of civil rights. (Thanks, big guy.)

Problems with New Jersey's civil unions can be fixed, he said.

However sincere the governor - I'll take him at his word - civil unions are the problem, and the fix is same-sex marriage.

It's been working just fine in Massachusetts, where heterosexuals get married under skies that haven't fallen. It will also work just fine in New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a historic marriage-equality measure into law last Friday.

"Why not in New Jersey?" asked Karen Nicholson-McFadden.

For one thing, Christie's unabashed bromance with Cuomo, whom he has called his "separated-at-birth twin brother," may be cooling.

And given his need to mollify the far-right wing of his party, the Republican governor's position seems unlikely to "evolve," which is how President Obama has described his own supposedly developing views on gay marriage.

Meanwhile, there's no denying the astonishing evolution, if not revolution, under way in the lives of gay people.

Those of us who came out in the pre-Ellen era are amazed how much easier it has become for us to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

It gets better, indeed.

As long as we don't try to get married in New Jersey.


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq

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