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Same-sex couples say they are trying to keep what they have

Posted: Sunday, April 01, 2007

Instead of fighting to gain rights, same-sex couples and their supporters are trying to keep ones they already have.

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They are also facing a campaign that some have described as not only hateful, but aimed at generating confusion among voters.

"The other side is incorrectly saying this is another vote on same-sex marriage. They are beating a dead horse. All this election is about is benefits," said Sara Boesser, who has been in a relationship with partner Carol Zimmerman for almost the same length of time she has worked for the city of Juneau - 26 years.

"They are intentionally muddying the waters. We cannot marry in this state. It is in the constitution already," Boesser said.

Boesser, 50, plans to retire May 1 and would like to know that when she does, her lifetime partner will be covered under her retirement benefits. Since the city began offering the plan to same-sex partners three years ago, she has been assured of that.

On Tuesday, Alaska voters will be asked to advise the Legislature on whether couples such as Boesser and Zimmerman should continue to have that right.

If approved, an amendment would not only reverse a Supreme Court mandate for the state to provide benefits to state employees, but could stop them at other public agencies including the University of Alaska and the city of Juneau. Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, has already sponsored legislation that details wording for an amendment. Some argue that this proposal, HJR9, is so broad and legally nebulous it could even keep private companies from offering those benefits.

On a recent evening at a downtown office, partners Daniel Collison and Ken Smith were putting out calls to talk about the vote. They volunteered at a phone bank organized by Alaskans Together, which was formed in January.

The two have worked for the state for more than 15 years and were calling registered voters likely to be sympathetic to gays. They still faced confusion.

"So far people have been supportive for the most part, just maybe some confusion that 'no' means a positive thing," said Marsha Buck, the Juneau organizer for the organization.

Buck said she got involved because the issue touches her personally. Her daughter is a lesbian.

"I care very much about what happens to my daughter," she said.

Couple Darla Madden and Karen Wood, also both state employees, were plaintiffs in the case that ended in the Supreme Court mandate.

Ballot question

• Question: "Shall the Legislature adopt a proposed amendment to the state constitution to be considered by the voters at the 2008 general election that would prohibit the state, or a municipality or other subdivision of the state, from providing employment benefits to same-sex partners of public employees and to same-sex partners of public employee retirees?"

• A "yes" vote: Would indicate support for a constitutional amendment denying employment benefits from same-sex partners of state and local government workers.

• A "no" vote: Would indicate opposition to a constitutional amendment denying employment benefits to same-sex partners of state and local government employees.

• For more information: Visit http://www.elections.state.ak.us/2007_adv_vote.php

Although they have been active in past debates, both decided not to participate in the phone bank.

"These issues have been so misunderstood. Sometimes it feels exhausting," Wood said. The couple spoke recently at their comfortable house on a quiet street just down the road from Safeway.

Their daughter, Willa, 7, played on the living room floor.

"For us it has been a six-year struggle," Wood said.

The women, both in their 40s, have had typical ailments. Wood has had surgeries to repair carpal tunnel syndrome, and Madden is undergoing treatment for a severely arthritic knee.

They want to make sure their family continues to have medical coverage. When Willa was first adopted, Wood considered staying home part-time. She couldn't because she would have lost the benefits, Madden said.

"We've built a nice life for ourselves. It doesn't seem fair that our co-workers get more money for being married," Wood said.

There are many misconceptions about what getting the benefits entails and what they give.

For example, since the federal government doesn't recognize same-sex couples, the value of the benefits package is actually tacked onto their total income for tax purposes.

That means they pay about $1,200 annually per person to receive the benefits, Madden said.

Some have argued that allowing the benefits would make them available to casual couples or roommates. The idea is ludicrous, say opponents of the amendment.

"It takes a lot of paperwork to qualify. It is not easy to fudge," Boesser said. Requirements include showing a history of things like a shared bank account, car payments and mortgage payments.

"Many of our married friends said they wouldn't qualify," Madden said.

The tone of the campaign also bothers many people.

"It just seems more vindictive" than previous debates on the issue, Collison said. "They will stop at nothing to deny rights to some members of society."

The daughter of a minister, Boesser grew up in a religious home.

"It pains me greatly to hear people condemn us and say that we don't deserve equal treatment," she said.

Boesser understands the Bible differently from others who use it as an argument against same-sex couples.

"The constitution is supposed to make room for everyone of every faith," she said.

Wood said it is hardest to hear critics use words such as "disordered" or "abnormal" to describe her relationship. To her, there's nothing abnormal about her love for Madden and the family they've created.

Buck said working on the issue has changed her approach over time.

"I used to be really angry, but not any more," Buck said.

"That part of the population who have what I call an irrational fear, I am probably not going to change their minds," Buck said.

Ultimately, the issue is about fairness and equal pay for equal work, say benefit proponents.

"Carol and I are there for each other. We will care for each other for the rest of our lives. We also have other responsibilities," Boesser said. "I feel I have earned my partner's benefits package."

• Brittany Retherford can be reached at brittany.retherford@juneauempire.com.



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