Lesbians and gay men may have only recently begun to get legally married but over the years they have had a lot of practice in sustaining long-term relationships. Because of the very real barriers that society has put in their way, LGBT folks have learned to nurture and maintain their long-term partnerships with the skills of acceptance, communication and love.
Michele, 58, and Vicki, 55, were married in New York in August of 2012—but they’ve been a couple for over 25 years. They met at a conference on LGBT issues back in 1986, when they were both young women looking to grow their communities. Their initial attraction was electric. As Michele explained, “I noticed Vicki right away and by the second workshop we were chatting.” Later that night Michele recalled Vicki asking, “I hope you’ll save a dance for me… and it turned out to be a slow dance which was kind of disarming. It was pretty bold!”
Michele describes their burgeoning relationship as “not typical of a lesbian couple” because “we didn’t live with each other for over six years.” At the time, they were both focused on career and Vicki had decided to go to law school at age 30. So, instead of cohabitating right away—which had been a pattern for both—they decided to move more slowly and cautiously. Later, when they did move in together, Michele and Vicki attended a “couples in recovery group” that Michele says “was probably the glue that kept us together.” There she learned that in order to have a long term relationship, you don’t leave, you stay. “We still seek counseling, “explains Michele, “and that is probably how we have succeeded at getting old together.”
Michele and Vicki live in Manhattan and with the legalization of marriage in New York State there was suddenly a new option, a new way of defining their relationship. In regard to marriage, Michele said at first she “was reluctant to do it, because I had never really thought about it! Vicki and I talked about doing it when New York passed marriage equality, but it felt like a half measure, like we wouldn’t have the full benefit of a marriage.”
After she heard a volunteer attorney’s presentation at SAGE on legal documents and marriage, Michele changed her mind. Michele stated firmly, “Once you’re a spouse, you are it—and no one can come in to dispute your rights to make decisions about your spouse or about your shared assets. If anything happens to Vicki, I’m going to be the one taking care of her and vice versa. I just want to make sure I’m fully resourced to care for my partner.” With that, the two were married in New York in 2012.
Michele and Vicki described their wedding on a Thursday afternoon as lovely. Vicki gave a beautiful speech and Michele sang “You’ll Never Get Away From Me” from the musical Gypsy. The ceremony was followed by lunch in Chinatown and a big family barbeque over Labor Day weekend. Michele recalled, “We didn’t want to make a huge deal of the wedding and we were so surprised that we got presents! People were into it far more than we were.” But, she admitted, “We had thought about marriage mostly in legal terms, so we didn’t foresee the celebration that it would later become. It was so much more of a joyful ceremony than what I and Vicki thought it would be.”
Because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prevents their marriage from being federally recognized, the biggest hardships now for Michele and Vicki are in the areas of taxes and retirement. Michele worries about not receiving Social Security benefits, if Vicki passes away, and having to pay the federal estate tax. Their tax filings are arduous and expensive. As Vicki explained, “The real beneficiary of DOMA is our accountant!” In order to file jointly in New York State the accountant needs to create a dummy federal return in order to determine the joint gross figure, plug that number into the state return, and then file individual returns with the federal government—and Michele and Vicki need to pay him for all the extra hours that go into this work.
All in all, they feel lucky not to have experienced too much hardship, but DOMA’s effects on their taxes and retirement planning loom large for them especially at this time in their lives.
So how do they keep the relationship strong after a quarter century? Michele says it comes with practice: “We are able to read each other’s energy levels. That’s the value of time and sticking with someone.” Their dedication and willingness to cherish a relationship is really what marriage is all about.
As for why they want federal recognition of their marriage, Michele said, “As a law-abiding, tax-paying, contributing member of society, I do not understand why am I so different from those who can lawfully be celebrated across all states for the time and effort that they put into their relationships.”