I 'married' my husband three times. In March 2004, Multnomah County began issuing same-sex marriage licenses, and we were married on the Portland courthouse steps. Less than three weeks later, the county stopped issuing licenses, and, in April 2005, after a year-long legal battle, our marriage, along with those of all other same-sex couples married during that brief period, was ruled 'void from inception'.
We redid our vows that same year at the Multnomah County Clerk's office and were given another certificate which said “Domestic Partnership”. When “Registered Domestic Partnerships” were made available in 2008, we went through the process again at the Polk County courthouse. After that we had three beautiful licenses framed and hanging with pride on our living room wall, and I had a sense of security about the recognition of our relationship. The new law was very clear: Domestic Partnerships were to be treated exactly the same as marriage.
I believed that, until the 'divorce'.
I met "John" in 1984, nearly three decades ago, when I returned to Alaska from Hawaii. I visited my old friend Douglas, who was with his roommate. The following afternoon I showed up at their door. "John" said, “Douglas isn't here.” I replied, “Yes, I know - I came to see you.” After sharing an apartment for a while, Douglas and "John" bought a condo together. His boxes arrived, but other than picking out colors, Douglas never made it into the condo.
Douglas Olsen was Alaska's first death from AIDS. "John" and I helped design his panel on the AIDS quilt (although we didn't actually sew it). After Douglas died, "John" asked me to move in – around Christmas 1984 I did, and we've been together ever since... until November 2011.
During those years in the 1980s and 1990s we both led busy, exciting lives. We owned several homes together, each one redone to the highest homosexual standards and each one worth twice what it was when we bought it. We were actively involved in fighting for civil rights and recognition of our relationship, but given the times and the location the best we could do was to draw up matching wills and a Durable POA for emergencies, which we did in in the mid-'90s.
I worked as a cook and chef for the Alaska Railroad, then at Prudhoe Bay (2 weeks on, 2 weeks off), and various restaurants. "John" was an RN supervisor, first with the state (also a lot of out-of-town time) and then with a number of hospitals. Our entire life together has been that way. It felt odd at first but as the time went by, it became like a worn-in shoe – not much structure, but a comfortable fit, and the kind of support you can only have when you've had plenty of time to get used to each other.
As the years wore on and our bodies aged it became apparent that getting around in the snow was becoming increasingly difficult and would soon be impossible. We decided to move somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. In late 2001, I went to Seattle to open up a photography studio. "John" stayed behind in Alaska to finalize the sale of the house and finish out his last few months at work before retirement.
I found a warehouse on the waterfront, opened the studio, and started working. "John" - who I knew would prefer a more suburban setting - settled on a place in Salem, so he could spend some time with his grandson from a previous marriage (I'm his 4th or 5th depending on how you count). I, meanwhile, would be able to spend the next few years working in the studio. Given our past history, the idea of spending 2 weeks in Salem with "John" and 2 weeks in Seattle was hardly foreign to either of us, as that's the schedule we'd been already been living with for nearly two decades. And that's the way things went for almost 10 years – until my progressing disability forced a change in plans. After having to close my studio and work for a couple years at various other jobs, I got ready to move down to Salem to finally be with "John" full-time. That was in summer 2011.
The bombshell came only a few weeks later, revealing cracks in the marriage I hadn't known were there. Communication broke down due to "John's" anger and controlling behavior, and things weren't looking good. When I visited him in August of 2011 he said, “maybe we should stop seeing each other.” I returned to my former studio in Seattle, devastated. I'd already given notice on the place, and now I had no home to go back to, and very little time to completely reformulate my entire plan for the future.
I finally decided to move to Northern California, where the cold damp weather in the coastal towns would be perfect for my disability. I hoped to get a small mobile home and resume my photography if possible. I was waiting at the time for SS benefits to kick in, but I figured that between the benefits and a modest settlement from "John", I would be able to make it work. I discussed it with "John". He agreed it was a good idea, and it was decided that I would stay briefly with him while waiting for my benefits.
I went to Salem in early November, and after barely a few days, "John's" hostility became unbearable. I spent the better part of the next two weeks locked in the spare room, and on November 18th, I packed up my $500 car with a few personal items (computer, clothes, and bedding – not much room left over in a 1991 Isuzu Stylus after that) and left late in the night, the tears streaming down my face as I drove away in silence... Away from the only man I have ever loved, away from our 28 years together, and into an uncertain future.
We had $50k in a 401k, a Prius in the driveway, and a house that was 100% paid for. To be reasonable, I had asked for $30k out of the 401k and continued medical insurance and prescription drug coverage. He could keep the rest: the car, the house, and everything in it. I had asked for this - in writing. He had agreed to it - in writing. So, I drove to California to start a new life, broken-hearted, but still expecting things to turn out for the best.
After arriving in Eureka, I got a lovely email from my husband asking me to please return to Oregon: "Whatever our problems, we can work it out, come home NOW". I turned my car around and headed home.
I should have known better, because before I made it to the Oregon border, I received another email - this time, from a lawyer forbidding me to go home or contact my husband in any way (this, it turns out, was of dubious legality, as it was NOT a formal restraining order, and I was never served with any documents in person).
The money my husband promised me for a new life never appeared, and I found myself living at I-5 rest stops and eating at gas stations off my Shell card. A trial date was set. Three months... Three months... I panicked and called the only family member within 500 miles, my 85-year-old Aunt Mary in Clackamas. I spent a month on her sofa, and from there I went from free bed to free bed, waiting for the trial to clear things up. After all, Oregon is a 50/50 state and Domestic Partnerships are to be treated exactly the same as marriages.
The trial was short and sweet, with my husband's lawyers on one side of the courtroom and me on the other, representing myself – since, of course, I had no money to hire an attorney.
The judge said there was no marriage and no relationship before 2008, so only major items purchased after 2008 were marital assets - since none were, there's nothing to split. Half of nothing is nothing. Oh, and because I was covered by my husband's medical and drug insurance that would be ending as well.
I learned all this a few days later, when the judge sent me his ruling in a personal email that stated I was "Sincere but not credible". As I read, my life and my marriage and my hopes for a better tomorrow started going down the drain. I was not amused when he closed the letter with "In Friendship". Alaska felt friendlier to me.
I felt cheated; I felt my civil rights had been violated; I went to a civil rights lawyer. I screamed, I cried - she was convinced I needed a good divorce lawyer, but in the end I convinced her to listen to a recording of the trial (if for no other reason than to shut me up). After all, it sounded like I was telling some pretty tall tales. She and another lawyer (he specialized in divorce) generously donated several hours each of their time for a very low fee, agreeing to review the trial together. Between the two of them they said they might, find some grounds for retrial.
Find them they did. Lots of them. They were shocked at the treatment I received at trial:
1. His "witnesses" to our non-marriage admitted under oath they haven't even seen us in 15 years.
2. Under Oregon law the settlement we reached in writing was binding and should have stayed in place.
3. I got my husband to admit under oath that his earlier testimony, under oath, was a lie.
4. The opposing lawyer told the judge, “it's almost lunch time, we need to wrap this up.” As the Judge started wrapping things up and telling us we would have our answer in a week or two, I protested: “Your Honor, I'm not done." His words were clear, and I felt their sting. "Yes, you are." More Polk County friendliness, I guess?
There are many more errors, of course - and I admit to making a few myself, not having represented myself in court before... for example, I showed my evidence, but did not know how to officially submit it, so despite mentioning it in my opening statement, and several times thereafter during the trial, none of my documentation was included in the decision itself - but the odds of having a new trial granted are 100%. I may not have known the law, but the judge should have, and he erred. Plain and simple.
Well, plain but not simple. You see, it takes time and money to fight for a retrial, and then once granted there's more time and more money spent on the second divorce trial, which would again be ruled upon by the same judge we had in the first trial. Would I win? Yes, I would, but the question is - win what? They tell me that the law is clear, and that only assets after 2008 are shared... and because we had no shared assets purchased after that date, I will win nothing. Which, as it turns out, is exactly what I won when I lost the first time – if that makes sense.
Oh, sure, I could make my ex-husband's life a living hell and force him to spend our - oops, his - retirement money on legal fees. But that’s not who I am, and I don't see what good it would do. If anything, it would just prolong the sickness of the relationship... although I do believe there’s a special place in hell for spouses that abandon their disabled partner of 28 years (and, let me repeat, he's an RN).
He sat there on the stand and said no marriage existed and that I was “nothing more than a roommate, and a pissy one at that.” He said this while holding in his hand three certificates issued by the State of Oregon that fairly persuasively proved otherwise... And the Judge said that I was not credible?
But I’m not angry with my ex-husband. Well, of course I am, but as I said before, that does no good. No, all my anger is directed at the State of Oregon, Polk County, the judge that didn't listen to me, and the system that failed me. I thought the law was there to protect me. I thought wrong.
As one final kick in the nuts, the deadline for filing for a new trial was July 27, 2012 – my 57th birthday. I let the date quietly pass. I had briefly attempted to see if I could kick-start some sort of on-line legal defense fund but my calls for assistance went unanswered and my emotional energy was - and still is - at an all time low.
I have a friend in Anchorage who has opened up his home to me, so I sold the Isuzu for and bought a plane ticket for the end of August. In the meantime, I got a ride to Seattle and am once again sleeping on another friend's sofa. My personal effects are in a storage locker in Oregon, so now I've got to find a way to get my goods to Alaska. Moving companies want $3,000 or more, and I don't have it (although if anyone is moving up north all my stuff fits in a 7x11 U-Haul - though I wouldn't be able pay much, I can promise that I'd have a nice warm plate of cookies waiting for you).
However, I really don't have time to worry about my things. I'm 100% disabled, a depressing neurological disorder called Trigeminal Neuralgia. My medical insurance has now been cut off, and my prescription drugs last only till the end of my current bottles. After that I'm on my own.
I’m not totally broke. Prudential sends me a nice little check each month (emphasis on little) while I wait for SSDI to be approved. It’s under appeal, has been for the last three years, and they tell me it will be another three years before I'm in the system. But that check isn't nearly enough to cover the monthly costs of my prescriptions. Honestly, I have no idea what I'm going to do.
I do know one thing. I’ve spent my entire life as a non-violent pacifist (my military service notwithstanding) - but the next person that tells me domestic partnerships are exactly the same as marriage is likely to get punched right in the nose.
PS: Over the years I’ve been on line, I've also been known to comment or post as: "Gandolf The Gay", "Tim Who?", and "Aurora Studios". I've also had two web sites: "Tim’s Place" - a photography and food blog, and "Midnight Sun Studios" - a photography site that was a bit more 'adult-oriented.'