Utah’s gay and lesbian parental rights

Story and photo by KOURTNEY COMPTON

Your worst fear is realized: your spouse and children have been involved in a horrific accident. In the emergency room you find your spouse on life support, and your children being wheeled into various ICU units.

As you rush to their side, an unstoppable force prevents you from walking in. This is not a force of nature or a force of man; it is a force of law and prejudice. For you are of a same-sex marriage and according to the law, you have no rights here.

This is the reality of Jessica Finnegan’s everyday life. She has been a caring parent and the financial provider for her family for the past 13 years. She paid for the expensive process of in vitro fertilization (IVF) using her brother as the donor, so she and her partner could have two children together. They both had children in prior relationships and together with these two new ones they face constant legal hardships.

Jessica Finnegan, center, Jasmyn, left, Jacquelyn, right.

“I have no rights, I have to lie and tell them I’m the babysitter or Katherine (her partner) to get medical care for my own children,” says Finnegan, who lives in Salt Lake City.

Luckily, she works for XO Communications, a company that offers equal health benefits for all domestic partners whether heterosexual or LGBT.

Many Utah companies are following suit. Intermountain Healthcare (IHC) has decided to extend health care benefits to both same-sex and opposite-sex domestic partnerships.

However, even with this progress, it is just a step toward equality, not a final resolution. This became evident once the employees discovered IHC would not be subsidizing the benefits of LGBT couples. Subsidized health insurance means that part or all of the premium is paid for with state or federal funds to ensure that low-income individuals have access to health care. This means they will likely pay anywhere from $100–$300 monthly more than a legally married couple.

“I commend Intermountain for taking the first small step in allowing access to benefits,” said Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah. “We will continue to have conversations about equity in the way those benefits are applied.”

IHC is the third largest employer in Utah; the first and second are the government and the LDS Church. Neither of these extends healthcare benefits to same-sex partners.

According to the Corporate Equality Index, “57% of Fortune 500 companies offer healthcare benefits to same sex domestic partners.”

Healthcare is just one of the many aspects of life where members of the LGBT community face inequality.

In 2000, Utah adopted a law that prohibits anyone cohabiting with an unmarried partner from adopting or fostering children. Gay men and lesbians who live alone may adopt. One individual who asked not to be identified said, “To get around this law, many same-sex couples hide their lives together, pretending their partner is a renter or hiding them completely. We hung pictures of the LDS temples in our house when we knew they were going to come over and we changed all the pictures of us to pictures of just myself.”

In Utah, close to a third of all gay and lesbian couples living together are raising children. There are 2,900 children currently living in homes with two same-sex parents, according to a 2008 report, by The Williams Institute a national think tank at UCLA Law, dedicated to conducting rigorous, independent research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy.

However, even though there are thousands of children living in same-sex parents homes, the children themselves may not have the same legal rights as opposite-sex married ones.

According to Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, New England’s leading legal rights organization, in the event of the parents’ death, their children may not receive Social Security survivor benefits. In the event of the legal parent’s death, the non-legal parent may not be able to win a custody hearing against biological relatives.

Not only do they face multiple difficulties in their union together, but in the event of a separation or “divorce,” the non-legal parent does not have any standing in court.

One LGBT couple here in Salt Lake City is currently in the midst of their partnership break up; they said it was primarily because of these inequalities. “Peter,” who asked that his real name not be used, said, “The top frustration of our marriage has been the extra hoops we have to jump through to gain just a fraction of the legal and financial protections that come automatically with a marriage license.”

In February 2008, the Salt Lake City Council unanimously approved an ordinance to create a citywide domestic-partnership registry, providing a mechanism by which employers can extend health care and other benefits to adult designees of their employees.

While Peter has not had to test the effectiveness of the Salt Lake City Registry with a hospital visitation, he and his partner have encountered other problems. He added, “Even though we have paid the thousands of dollars in legal fees and completed the registry to get the paperwork necessary, oftentimes companies choose to ignore the paperwork when it is presented. By the time we have obtained resolution legally, oftentimes the original crisis has passed.”

Peter also said he is frustrated by lawmakers. “The anxiety I feel every winter when the Utah legislature is in session, wondering what kind of hostile and nonsense laws they are going to try and pass.”

He said if he were given the power, the top thing he would change is to get government out of marriage altogether. He said he would start with the elimination of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, enacted Sept. 21, 1996, as he feels it is unconstitutional and an overstep of federal and states rights.

Jessica Finnegan, whose partner was involved in the accident, said, “I have supported my family for over 13 years, I have paid for the house, the food we eat, the medical procedures to bear our children, yet I feel like a renter in my own home.  I have raised my children side-by-side with my partner, yet should anything happen to her, I have no rights to my own family.”

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