A Good Return for Our Toil

“Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up. Again, if two lie together, they are warm; but how can one be warm alone?”

— Ecclesiastes 4:9-11s

Jim has cancer. Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, to be exact, which is one of the less horrible types of cancer to have. In Jim’s case, the cancer manifested itself most prominently in a tumor between his T6 and T7 vertebrae, about where the bottoms of the shoulder blades are. Doctors were uncertain what the best method was to access the growth — surgery or biopsy — so they debated for so long that the tumor grew large enough to settle the issue. Biopsy. However, as the tumor grew, it pressed against Jim’s spinal chord, leaving him in constant pain and unable to walk or even get out of bed without leaning on something or someone.

To deal with the pain, doctors gave him painkillers, which, over the many months he took them, made him disoriented and confused and caused him to break out in sores all over his body. His memory was affected, and at times he couldn’t remember what day it was or the names of common items, such as a clock or a vase. Yet, as the tumor grew, the painkillers did less to alleviate his suffering and more to addle his mind. By the time he began radiation treatments on his back, he cried daily in pain and couldn’t leave the house without supervision for fear that he would get lost or fall.

After four months of constant pain, Jim spent 14 days in the hospital, dealing with his third and fourth MRIs, third CAT scan, a lumbar puncture, bone marrow test, and countless blood and urine tests. Every morning and every night of his stay, I was at his bedside, sharing his tears, pain, and fear. Jim is my partner of 11 years (12 if you ask him). I know that the coming months of chemotherapy will be tough, not just for him, but for me also — juggling work with being the primary caregiver of a cancer patient leaves little time for relaxation. But I don’t dread it. I would give all that I have to help heal him. And I know that he would do the same for me if our situations were reversed. We are destined to grow old together.

We’ve learned a lot through this experience, about cancer and chemo to be sure, but also about each other and our relationship. And we’ve learned more than ever before how gay couples are disenfranchised by a society that refuses to recognize our bond. In our minds, and in the minds of our friends and families, we are married. Only the government fails to recognize this union, and that fact has made a traumatic experience a hellish ordeal.

You see, Jim is one of the tens of millions of Americans without insurance. Were we married, that wouldn’t be the case; Jim would automatically be on my insurance. He would see a doctor in private practice, not one in a clinic, a clinic so busy it misplaced his medical records for two weeks. His primary physician would have the time to oversee and guide his treatment, and he probably wouldn’t have been bounced from doctor to surgeon to specialist. Don’t get me wrong — Jim has excellent doctors, and we have nothing but high praise for the majority of doctors, nurses, and hospital staff we have dealt with. Still, were he not a part of a grossly underfunded system for handling uninsured patients, he would be much further on his road of recovery.

Our status as an unmarried couple has more legal complications than medical ones, though. If we were married legally, the number of legal documents which we have had to fill out would be significantly reduced. There have been special forms to give me permission to be advised of his medical condition, make medical decisions should he become incapacitated, allow me power of attorney over his estate and medical treatment, and provide me with extended visitation rights. If we were married legally, there would be no question who would be consulted should his condition worsen or he should lose his faculties. Undoubtedly, I would still get asked repeatedly “And who are you?” by hospital personnel, but the answer “I’m his spouse” would end any discussion of my right to be present.

Fortunately for us, Jim’s family wouldn’t interfere with my relationship with him or his healthcare. For many gay and lesbian couples, this isn’t true. There are countless stories of parents and siblings who have denied GLBT individuals access to their hospitalized partner, even though the ailing party has severed all ties with his or her biological family. Without the proper legal paperwork in place, Jim’s half-sister in Colorado, with whom he hasn’t spoken in almost 10 years, would have more say about his funeral arrangements than I would, despite the fact that Jim has expressed clearly to me what his final wishes are. This estranged party would have a legal right to supersede all of his wishes and bury him wherever and however she felt fit.

In all honesty, where I work offers domestic partner benefits, but even so, there are a dozen hurdles through which we must jump to receive them. We must have a lease or mortgage in both our names (got it), a joint bank account (check), and some other proof of joint financial holdings. And it is here that we fail to qualify. I work, Jim doesn’t. It was a decision we made as a couple for how we wanted to live. Consequently, Jim’s credit isn’t sufficient to get put on my credit card, be a co-signer on the car, or make any large financial purchases with me. Thus, despite an 11-year monogamous relationship and the willingness of numerous people to vouch that we are in fact a committed couple, he doesn’t qualify to be on my insurance. If we were married legally, then we could live in a cardboard box under the 2nd St. Bridge and dig our meals out of dumpsters, but he would be on my insurance. There would be no financial obligations to meet.

The only financial advantage that our status as an unmarried couple has allowed us is that my income can’t be used by the government to determine financial assistance in paying the quickly mounting medical bills. Drug companies don’t operate by those rules, however, and one of the companies providing Jim’s chemo drugs insisted on knowing my income before setting a price for the drug. However, the same company that recognizes our domestic partnership in determining Jim’s eligibility to pay doesn’t offer domestic partnership benefits to its own employees.

This isn’t the first time that the inequities gay couples face have been apparent to me. Our first year together, I figured out my taxes twice — once as a single man, which is what the government says I am, and once as a married man, which is what I consider myself. Under the government’s classification, I owed a lot of money. As a married man, I would have gotten a substantial refund.

A year after moving in together, Jim and I moved to a new apartment. The landlady, a sweet senior woman, pulled me aside when it came time to sign the lease and asked me if I really wanted to have Jim on the lease, since she viewed him as a financial risk. I can’t imagine that she ever asked any of the heterosexual married couples the same question, although, in hindsight, she probably should have. Our relationship has outlasted more than a few of our straight neighbors’.

Three weeks ago, a government agency accidentally referred Jim to a collection agency for a debt he doesn’t owe. Even though the agency has admitted that they made a mistake and asked the collection agency to desist in pursuing collection, the agency (Global) has continued to call two to three times a day. Because I have no legal standing, I can’t help resolve the problem, since the company won’t discuss it with me. Despite the stress of his illness and chemotherapy, Jim must deal with the additional stress of their calls. One of their gracious employees informed him that the company would “continue to harass him until he pays up” — pays them money he doesn’t owe. If we were legally married, I would have already been at the Attorney General’s office to file a grievance, but we’re not and Jim has been too sick to file such a complaint, so the calls keep coming.

According to ReligiousTolerance.org, gay couples are denied over 1,400 benefits available to married heterosexual couples, so I have no doubt that we haven’t dealt with our last challenge as a non-married married couple. Wealthy gay couples have the opportunity to spend the tens of thousands of dollars needed to draw up the myriad of legal documents protecting their relationships, property, and children from outside interference. Lower to middle class gay and lesbian couples can’t afford such protections, so they must battle continuously to be recognized.

The fact that Jim and I live in the Commonwealth of Kentucky won’t help in our struggle to be treated fairly. In 2003, Democratic Governor Paul Patton issued an order forbidding discrimination in state offices based on sexual orientation, but his successor, Republican Ernie Fletcher, reversed that order in 2006, arguing that he was trying to free the state from frivolous discrimination lawsuits and that he did not want to create a “new special class of people”. However, homosexuals in Kentucky already have such a classification. In ruling Kentucky’s sodomy laws unconstitutional in 1992, the Kentucky Supreme Court branded homosexuals as a “suspect class” of individuals, wording that can be used in a variety of criminal and custody cases to portray gay and lesbian persons as immoral and immediately suspect. The Kentucky legislature hasn’t helped matters. Although the body did take a forward step by rejecting proposed legislation requiring local fairness ordinances be approved by the state, it has deemed oral and anal sex as “deviant sexual behavior”. Such wording doesn’t outlaw those behaviors, but it does allow those who engage in such sexual behaviors to be declared deviant. Again, the implications for legal proceedings are far-reaching.

Granted, we could move to a more progressive state, but that wouldn’t necessarily help. New Jersey allows civil unions, but a survey conducted by the Bridgeton News found that most mayors in the state will stop performing all weddings rather than perform a single same-sex civil ceremony. Only the mayor of Fairfield Township, Craig Thomas, said he would be willing to join both gay and straight couples. (“N.J. Officials Told They Must Perform Civil Union Ceremonies”, 30 December 2006, Advocate.com)

In Massachusetts, the only state which has legalized gay marriage, Republican Governor Mitt Romney has sued the state legislature to try and force it to vote on a citizen petition to put on the ballot a gay marriage ban amendment to the state Constitution.

Perhaps Governors Romney and Fletcher would like to come on over to my house and explain to my sick partner why he shouldn’t have the legal right to be my spouse and have access to the health insurance which would have speeded up his diagnosis. We’ll be happy to show them the stack of legal documents we’ve had to fill out just to allow me to be a part of Jim’s treatment process. Perhaps these two men, both devoutly religious men (Fletcher is a lay Baptist minister), will have enough empathy to put themselves in my place and imagine what it would be like if their wives became critically ill and they had to get permission to help them recover. Perhaps they can explain to me why Article IV, Section 2, of the United States Constitution, which maintains “The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States”, should continue to be flagrantly violated and ignored.

If I seem to be a little pissed off, I’m not. I’m outraged. But that anger must go on hold for awhile. I have a cancer patient to love and care for, and his needs come before any political concerns. Jim will beat this. As he says, he has cancer, cancer doesn’t have him. Jim’s doctors’ are quick to note that the two keys to his recovery are a positive attitude and a loving support system. He has both those things. Although the coming year will be filled with hardships and challenges, we will endure the chemotherapy, the mounting medical bills, and the repetitious trips to the hospital and the pharmacy together. That’s what married people do.