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What's in a name? For gay couples getting civil unions, confusion
By Geoff Mulvihill, Associated Press Writer | December 24, 2006
MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. --In the early 1990s, Christopher Bellis, wary of shocking people, introduced the men he was dating as his "friends."
Now, he and Eddie Bennett, who have been a couple since 1995, are considering replacing the word they usually use for each other -- "partner" -- with "spouse" or "husband."
New Jersey's new law creating civil unions, signed Thursday by Gov. Jon Corzine, gives same-sex couples many of the rights of marriage. Now, gay couples are weighing not what civil unions mean, but what to call them.
Some gay couples refer to entering into a civil union as getting "civilized" or "unionized."
New Jersey joins Connecticut and Vermont as states that allow civil unions for gay couples. Massachusetts allows gay couples to marry, while California has domestic partnerships that bring full marriage rights.
Anne Stanback, executive director of Love Makes a Family, a gay rights political group in Connecticut, said there isn't a consensus in her state about what to call the act of getting a civil union, or what same-sex partners should call each other.
"We hear some people using the term 'spouse,' We hear some saying 'partner,'" she said. "A few use 'husband' and 'wife,' but most want to save those for when marriage is legalized."
New Jersey's law came in response to an October state Supreme Court order that gay couples be granted the same rights as married couples. The court gave lawmakers six months to act but left it to them to decide whether to call the unions "marriage" or something else.
Gay couples welcomed the law, but some argued that not calling the relationship "marriage" creates a different, inferior institution.
Veronica Hoff of Mount Laurel said she doesn't usually use "spouse" to describe Forest Kairos because they are not legally married, though they have had a commitment ceremony. She isn't fond of "partner" because that term is vague; she said it could mean business partner or tennis partner.
Privately, she and Kairos refer to each other by "cupcake," with "cup" an acronym for "civil union partner."
"It's a cute nickname," she said. "But if I introduce her to somebody else as my cupcake, it doesn't have a sense of dignity to it."
Bellis and Bennett affirmed their relationship through a family commitment ceremony in 1996 and by registering for domestic partnership in New Jersey in 2004. They plan to apply for a civil union license after the law takes effect Feb. 19.
"I no longer want the government to dictate what I can call my spouse," said Bellis, of South Orange.
Civil unions offer all the benefits of marriage New Jersey can confer, from adoption rights to alimony rights. They won't help same-sex couples with federal issues of marriage, such as Social Security benefits or being able to file taxes jointly, however.
The legal and legislative debate over the law was not about those benefits so much as it was about language.
Lawmakers considered terms such as "spousal partnerships" and "civil marriages," and "equal benefits" before settling, as expected, on civil unions. That's a term Vermont and Connecticut also use.
The question over language now becomes more personal than political. In its ruling, the Supreme Court wrote: "However the Legislature may act, same-sex couples will be free to call their relationships by the name they choose."
For Joan Hervey, a Plainfield mortgage consultant, there's no question what to call partner Linda Geczi because they were married legally in Canada.
"I'm going to call her my wife," she said.