Lauren Beth Czekala-Chatham
A Mississippi woman wants the state Supreme Court to recognise gay marriage – so that she can divorce a partner she married in San Francisco.
Lauren Beth Czekala-Chatham, a 52-year-old credit analyst, who already had two children from a failed heterosexual marriage, moved to California in 2008 so that she could marry Dana Ann Melancon. But the relationship soured and they separated in 2010.
When Ms Czekala-Chatham, who now has a new girlfriend, applied for a divorce, citing adultery and habitual cruel and inhuman treatment, she failed. The state predictably argued that Mississippi could not grant a divorce for a marriage which it did not recognise. It was a result that she found devastating. In her eyes, divorce was an important dimension of the social recognition of marriage.
“It’s humiliating to know that you spend that money, that time to be in a committed relationship and for it to end. I mean, that hurts. But then to be in a state that doesn’t recognize you as a human being, or recognize you for who you are, for who you love, it’s hard. I’m not treated like the neighbors next door. I’m treated like a second-class citizen.”
She feels that the inability to get a divorce is clearly discriminatory:
“Why should I be treated differently, you know? When the courthouse is a few blocks from here, I should be able to walk up there and get married. I should also be able to go up there and get divorced.”
Making the right to divorce as important as the right to marry sounds bizarre, but it is a logical part of the package. It is already established in Massachusetts, the first state to legalise same-sex marriage. Peter F. Zupcofska, a Boston lawyer who was once featured in GQ magazine as the “Master of Gay Divorce”, has handled hundreds of dissolutions of same-sex marriages and partnerships – including the marriage of the lesbian couple at the centre of the State Supreme Court decision which legalised it. When two male egos are involved, divorce can be tempestuous, Zupcofska says.
“It’s very often a War of the Roses situation. It’s ‘He said, he said. ‘I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of dollars in property destroyed. People would rather break something than let the other party have it. ‘Guess what he just did? He smashed our collection of Dresden pottery that was going to the Museum of Fine Arts!’ It’s soap-opera law.”
And for lawyers like him, it has been a windfall. “There’s more of a market for florists now. There’s more of a market for caterers. And there’s more of a market for lawyers,” a gay activist told Details magazine.
It’s always sad to see a relationship break up in bitterness and recrimination, whether it is a marriage, a friendship or a same-sex partnership. But is one person’s personal tragedy enough reason to force a whole state to change its legal system? This sounds more like self-centred grandstanding than justice. In any case, if Ms Czekala-Chatham really needs a divorce to get on with her life, why doesn’t she dissolve in California what she created in California?
This case also proves that same-sex marriage is simply not the same as conjugal marriage. When a man and a woman tie the knot, they vow to remain together “until death do us part”. The words may vary, but the expectation is the same: marriage is for ever and ever; it forges an unbreakable bond.
Sadly, marriages do founder and spouses do renege on their vows. For such couples, governments have created the possibility of divorce. But except in the wedding chapels of Las Vegas, men and women still embark upon marriage with the impossibly romantic notion of permanent vows and exclusive fidelity. Divorce has always been regarded as a regrettable exception, not as a normal part of the life cycle.
But permanence is not embedded in same-sex marriage. Would gays and lesbians ever dare to propose marriage without divorce? It’s impossible to imagine. What they want is not conjugal marriage, but marriage-lite, a new type of relationship which is neither permanent nor exclusive. Since the law is a teacher, this new mindset will inevitably spread to heterosexual couples as well. The last thing that starry-eyed young lovers in America need is to be able to follow in the footsteps of Lauren Beth Czekala-Chatham.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.