Sally Clark, whose name has been changed because of her ongoing divorce proceedings, never thought that her relationship of 10 years would fall apart only a year after having a civil union. She knew before moving to Florida that same-sex marriage was not accepted, but Clark and her partner were undeterred.
After moving from Vermont to Florida, Clark, who was raised Catholic, attended services at a nearby church, but she and her partner never registered as a married couple. When a petition was started to support that marriage was between a man and a woman, it rubbed Clark the wrong way.
“I want to say it was like a witch hunt,” Clark said.
However, the “pointing the finger mentality” was too much for Clark’s partner to handle and caused her to deny her homosexuality.
“If you’re denying that than you’re denying us,” Clark said. Eventually the two would separate. However, since Florida did not recognize the couple as legally married, they had to return to Vermont if they wanted to dissolve their civil union.
Clark insisted that if her partner wanted a divorce, her partner should go back to Vermont.
“If you’re so sure, then you go,” Clark said. But neither Clark nor her partner truly understood what getting a divorce in Vermont required.
According to the American Psychological Association, 40 to 50 percent of married couples in the United States divorce. But while most couples wait less than a year from the time they file their petition, Clark has been waiting four years. Although Florida not recognizing her marriage is a part of the problem, Clark has many other issues to contend with in order to legally divorce her former partner. With Governor Rick Scott re-elected, it is unlikely the problems Clark faces will be resolved in the near future.
“In our exuberance to celebrate marriage equality,” said Rev. Ruth K. Jensen-Forbell, senior pastor at First Coast Metropolitan Community Church. “[People] don’t even think about the possibility of divorce.”
After leaving the Roman Catholic Church, Clark found Rev. Forbell preaching at the branch of MCC, a national church that caters to the LGBT community, in St. Augustine.
Forbell was legally married to her partner in Canada, and then several years later in New York. Although her personal relationship has lasted, she councils same-sex couples every month. But Forbell does not wait for something to go sour before she brings up the topic of divorce.
“I talk to them about divorce when I am talking to them about getting married,” Rev. Forbell said.
This foresight is required because even if a couple is legally married in one state, they can run into legal issues if they move elsewhere.
“We have to do all these things to legally protect ourselves, which legally married people don’t have to do,” Rev. Forbell said.
If a loved one is in an accident and is unable to speak, generally their closest relative is given the authority to speak for them. For heterosexual couples spouses are able to speak for each other. Since Florida does not recognize Rev. Forbell’s marriage, she carries a card with her at all times that, in the event of an emergency, gives her partner the power to speak for her. While this does solve the problem, the entire necessity leaves a sour taste in her mouth.
“If something happened to her and I showed up as next of kin, I’d have to show something to prove it,” Rev. Forbell said. “I don’t think a heterosexual couple would even be asked.”
This issue constantly sits in the back of Clark’s mind. She said if her partner’s family ever disavowed their relationship, Clark would be left in the dark if her partner was hospitalized.
Medical emergencies are only the start of the issues. One of the newer ramifications that couples run into is children.
“People don’t think,” said Nancy Brodzki, a marital and family lawyer in Cape Coral, Florida. “They say everything is going to be fine.”
But realistically, if a same-sex couple gets divorced, only the biological mother is given inherent parental rights to the children. If a non-biological spouse wants to have rights, Brodzki said there are only two options.
If a couple knows they want to have children together then they can file special documents with the clinic to deem both partners as the commissioning couple even though there is only one egg. This option was only recently decided by the Florida Supreme Court in D.M.T. v. T.M.H. in 2013. Although this may solve future problems, the issues stem from couples not considering the possibility of divorce from the start.
This leaves only one other option open: adoption. Although this will give equal parental rights in the event of a divorce, there is a catch. Adoption can cost anywhere from $4,000 to $5,000. Even if a couple is willing to pay the costs, they are still being penalized if they’re marriage is not recognized by the state. For a heterosexual couple, Brodzki said they would pay an estimated $2,500. Same-sex couples, however, are required to have a home study done by an independent agency.
This process is done to ensure that the home is suitable for a child to live in. While this is done for same-sex couples, the home study (which can cost up to $1,000) is not done for heterosexual step-parents
However, the most common and draining issue to contend with is residency.
“People go all over the world and they get married. They come back and the relationship falls apart,” said Brodzki. “But they can only get a divorce in the state they reside in, and Florida doesn’t recognize their marriage.”
Clark could get a divorce in Vermont but since she is no longer a resident of Vermont, she would have to re-establish her residency. To do that would require her to live there for six months to a year.
This is not an option for Clark because she already contends with health issues and is unable to cope with the emotional and physical distress involved with moving to another state.
Clark has been talking to lawyers since 2004, and met up with her current one in Jacksonville several years ago. Her lawyer let her know from the outset that this process would take time.
“I was hoping this year was going to be my year because so much was going on with the Supreme Court,” Clark said. “But for Florida, nothing has changed a bit as far as the mentality here.”
Linda Anderson understands that mentality, specifically in St. Augustine, better than others. She moved to Florida after living in Connecticut for 40 years and quickly noticed the lack of LGBT presence in St. Augustine.
“The queer community down here is just suppressed,” Anderson said. She eventually started a Facebook group called LGBT St. Augustine and so far the page has over 440 likes. However, many people are still hesitant to be in the public eye. “Very few people comment on my Facebook page because if you comment, your name is out there.”
People have asked Anderson why there are not LGBT events in town. Although she will respond by asking for help setting an event up, many people are unwilling to help organize.
Anderson believes that people are hesitant to voice their opinions because the LGBT community is not afforded equal rights in St. Augustine. During this past midterm election, Anderson spoke to both of St. Augustine’s mayoral candidates about enacting a human rights ordinance in town. This would ensure individuals could not be discriminated against regardless of their gender identity.
Incumbent Joe Boles invited Anderson to eat lunch with him and discuss the issues that the LGBT community faces in St. Augustine, however when Anderson invited people on her Facebook page to join Boles and her for lunch, no one was willing.
Anderson also spoke with challenger Nancy Shaver when Shaver approached her while walking door-to-door. Anderson’s voice on LGBT issues ended up impressing Shaver.
“We had a really frank and open discussion,” Shaver said. “[She] made me do my homework about something I wasn’t aware of.”
Boles proposed a human rights ordinance several weeks before the Nov. 4 elections. Shaver, who won the mayoral race, said she is pushing to have the ordinance passed but nothing has come of it yet.
Although Anderson is admittedly not a huge advocate for marriage in particular, she is a proponent for LGBT community having the exact same rights as heterosexuals, nothing more and nothing less.
“I’ve never been a huge advocate for same-sex marriage, although I firmly believe it should be on a par with opposite-sex marriage,” said Anderson. “As for divorce, I’ve always said we have the right to get divorced too.”
Gov. Scott remained quiet about the issue of same-sex marriage during his campaign. His spokesperson said that the issue is about constitutionality and it is the responsibility of the attorney general to handle cases involving Florida’s constitution, as reported by the Tallahassee Democrat. Simultaneously, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi filed, this past September, to appeal the court ruling that the Florida ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. With Gov. Scott’s successful re-election and the Attorney General fighting the court’s ruling, there appears to be a Republican grasp on the state’s legislature. One that may require the U.S. Supreme Court to break.
Although Rev. Forbell thinks Florida will eventually legalize same-sex marriage, therefore ending the issues that couples in divorce go through, she believes that marriage itself is changing. She often sees many couples who will live together but intentionally not get married.
“Unless there is a deep seeded commitment that two people make to one and other, no legal document is going to do anything except cause trouble,” Rev. Forbell said.
Forbell described one couple who have lived together for 45 years, have great grand-children and only recent got married. Forbell asked them why they decided to do it and the couple said “we just thought we would.”
She thinks the word marriage is one of the biggest points of contention for those opposed to same-sex marriages.
“The word [marriage] means nothing to me,” Rev. Forbell said. Because of this philosophy, she is constantly reminded by people that marriage is in the Bible.
“[They] have no idea what [they’re] talking about,” Rev. Forbell said. “Marriages is in the Bible are not marriages any of us want.”
Legally, civil unions are different from marriages because a civil union won’t necessarily hold power outside the state it was performed. But the name given to the ceremony is a moot point for Rev. Forbell.
“I’m fine with whatever you want to call it,” Rev. Forbell said. “Providing it allows every single right that heterosexual couples have when they are married to be the same locally and federally.”
This is ultimately where Clark sees Florida failing.
“I like Florida for a lot of reasons, but it needs to step up to the times,” Clark said. “If it [the constitution] says equality for all people, then let’s make it all people.”
Clark has not lost hope that things will change in Florida eventually but she admits the process is draining. Even if Florida does recognize same-sex marriage in the future, the problems are not entirely solved for Clark. She still must see her former partner in court.
“When it happens, it’ll be cause for celebration,” Clark said. “But when we do go to court, it’ll bring us adversaries together again.”
Since Clark took her partner’s name, it is a constant reminder of the past.
“She [Clark’s former partner] is living on her own like it never happened but because I took her name,” Clark said. “I’m still having to deal with this and I want to change. I want to make that name go away.”