For Alabama couples, no change from DOMA ruling
by Tim Lockette
Jun 27, 2013 | 5216 views |  0 comments | 162 162 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A couple of blissfully happy young men embrace while others around them seem quite delighted themselves following the U.S. Supreme Court's pair of rulings Wednesday concerning same-sex unions in the United States. (Associated Press photo by Charles Dharapak)
A couple of blissfully happy young men embrace while others around them seem quite delighted themselves following the U.S. Supreme Court's pair of rulings Wednesday concerning same-sex unions in the United States. (Associated Press photo by Charles Dharapak)
Gary Hunt wants desperately to be married to his life partner of 32 years, but he's not buying a wedding cake yet.

"Nothing's changed for us," said Hunt, 59, of Gadsden. "I'm glad about the ruling, but we've not really gained anything personally."

Hunt and his partner, 69-year-old Jimmy Jester, have navigated the waters of gay couplehood in the South for decades. They’ve filed singly but lived jointly. They’ve wrestled with bureaucrats over who can be listed as a beneficiary. They’ve watched kids grow, and then grandkids, but without a marriage license in hand.

Wednesday's rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court didn't bring them any closer to getting that license. Gay rights advocates across the country cheered Wednesday when the high court struck down a ban on federal recognition of same sex marriage and, in a separate ruling, struck down California's gay marriage ban.

While the rulings extend marriage benefits to thousands of couples, they had little direct impact on gay couples in Alabama, where a ban on same-sex unions is written into the state constitution and the nearest gay-marriage state is hundreds of miles away.

"The ruling doesn't really affect people here," said Michael Hansen, spokesman for the Birmingham branch of the gay rights group Equality Alabama. Even so, Hansen was organizing gay marriage rallies across the state Wednesday, and he expected a good turnout.

The rulings were still a victory for same-sex marriage movement, Hansen noted, and they might prove beneficial for some Alabamians married in other states who are seeking federal benefits.

That would seem to include federal employees, married out of state and seeking spousal benefits from the state — but it wasn't clear on Wednesday just how that would play out. Lisa Hunter, spokeswoman for the Center for Domestic Preparedness, and Clester Burdell, spokeswoman for Anniston Army Depot, both said their installations hadn't received any direction from the federal government on the matter.

"The ruling just happened," Hunter said Wednesday morning. "We haven't gotten any guidance on that yet."

Attempts to reach Department of Defense officials for comment were unsuccessful Wednesday.

The leader of state's Republican Party described the Supreme Court ruling as "disturbing" in a press released Wednesday.

"The ruling does not immediately affect Alabama, but it does mean that our taxpayers will be on the hook for extending federal benefits to homosexual couples in the 12 states that allow gay marriage," GOP chairman Bill Armistead said in the release.

Hunt says he's simply asking for benefits other couples have. To get his partner listed as a beneficiary on his life insurance, he had to list his sister first, then change his beneficiary. He and his partner have given some of their possessions to their business, he said, the only way they can own them jointly. The pair applied for status as foster parents in 1990, and didn't get approved until this year, he said.

Hunt noted that for straight couples, rights of marriage can kick in under common law even if they don't get officially hitched.

"I can pick up some woman on the side of the road, live with her for six months, get our names on a power bill and we're married," he said.

Gay marriage advocates say it would likely take yet another court case to get Alabama to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages, or to legalize them here. Such a court case may already be in the works. According to the Associated Press, state Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, said that she and her partner were preparing to sue for marriage rights in Alabama.

Gay rights advocates said they expected same-sex marriage to come to Alabama through court action, not through a referendum or legislative vote, because of the state's longstanding resistance to gay rights.

Nationwide polls, including recent polls by the Pew Center for the People and the Press, show the Deep South as the region least supportive of gay rights. New York Time pollster Nate Silver, best known for picking winners in presidential races Wednesday, predicted that 44 states would have majority support for gay marriage by 2020. Alabama was among the six states Silver predicted as holdouts.

Still, gay rights advocates say they've seen rapid movement in public opinion. Ralph Young, of the group Alabama Stonewall Democrats, said his organization polled Alabamians on their support for protecting gay people from employment or housing discrimination. In 2011, 51 percent of respondents said they supported protections. In March of this year, that figure moved to 60 percent.

"We've seen a lot of movement in a little more than a year," Young said. "There have been more discussions with friends, with neighbors, with co-workers."

Gerald Johnson, chief pollster for the Alabama Education Association's Capital Survey Research Center, said past polls showed strong opposition to homosexuality in Alabama — but not to the exclusion of other issues. Support for hypothetical "traditional marriage" political candidates was low, he said, when the other option was a candidate who supported education funding or tax fairness.

"It depends on how you frame it," he said.

Compared to gay rights activists in other states, Alabama's advocates have often taken a soft-sell approach. Pride marches and capitol protests do happen, but are rare events.

Hansen, of Equality Alabama, said activists have chosen to focus on building support at the local level, by helping schools address anti-gay bullying and by proposing anti-discrimination ordinances at the city level. He said one such ordinance is under consideration in Birmingham. The Stonewall Democrats' polling shows 77 percent support for equal rights protections there.

Hunt, a leader on Gadsden's chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, said there's another reason behind the low-key approach.

"People don't want their house burned down," he said. Hunt said things have improved in recent years, but in small towns the threat of violence is still real.

Hunt described the local PFLAG chapter as “not very political,” saying it provides support to local gay people, including young people who come to the meetings looking for support after their families have shunned them.

Young, of the Stonewall Democrats, said support for gay marriage will come to Alabama eventually, even if it comes after a court order to recognize same-sex unions. But even then, he said, there will be a lot of work to do.

"Just look at the news this week, with Paula Deen and voting rights," he said. "The South is still working on race, and we've got a 50-year head start."

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.
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