Civil unions: one year later
By Matt Hanley email@example.com June 23, 2012 10:26PM
Jaimie Pagano, left, greets her son Cooper, 14 months and wife Nikki Pagano, right, at the bottom of a slide at a park in Naperville on Thursday, June 21, 2012. Jaimie and Nikki were in Chicago last year for the mass civil union ceremony after they were legalized in Illinois. The both agree that civil union's are a step in the right direction but are still far from equal to the rights married couples have. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
From the storyteller
For years, many gay couples have struggled with how to identify their loved one. Wife? Husband? Partner?
Even among people who accepted their relationship - heck, even between each other - the answer never seemed quite right. To some, spouse seemed disingenuous when there was no legal right to marry. To others, their love made them a husband or wife, not a piece of paper. Partner fit just right for some couples; others said that word should stay with law firms.
Naperville couple Jamie and Nikki Pagano have told people they were “married” since they got hitched in a 2007 ceremony. So when Illinois began recognizing civil unions year ago, they couldn’t help but joke about their new status. Had they become civilized? Were they now part of The Union?
Of all the struggles for gay couples, it’s not the most important thing. But it’s illustrative.
When Illinois allowed gay couples to file for civil unions, it opened up new legal protections, economic opportunities and peace of mind. Everyone I talked to said they were grateful for the monumental step. In most cases, the designation has made a significant difference in their lives.
And yet it’s not quite marriage. And there are plenty of large and small rights that heterosexual married couples take for granted, but still aren’t available to same-sex couples. That’s why these couples continue to fight for full legal married status. Even if it means they’d have to drop their membership in the Civilized Union.
- Matt Hanley
Updated: July 2, 2012 11:08PM
Perhaps it was the looming election – or maybe it was just time – but the last 12 months have been filled with marriage news. It was one year ago, that Illinois officially began certifying civil unions, a process that gave legal recognition to same-sex couples. It was a significant breakthrough statewide, but it was only the beginning.
In May, President Barack Obama said gay couples should have the right to marry and that the country has never gone wrong when it “expanded rights and responsibilities to everybody.” Then, earlier this month, two gay rights groups sued the Cook County Clerk, saying the office discriminates against gay couples by refusing to grant them marriage licenses. Instead of a long legal fight, Illinois prosecutors have essentially agreed with the gay couples, saying the law is discriminatory.
All of these actions were national landmarks. But the changes had a much more personal impact for Fox Valley couples who applied for civil unions one year ago.
Jamie and Nikki Pagano, Naperville
One year after their civil union pictures were on the front page of the Naperville Sun, Nikki and Jamie Pagano insist their life is entirely average. They’re just like every other couple raising a toddler.
“The story is that there’s no story,” Nikki Pagano insisted recently.
And, that’s true, mostly. They go to work. They take their son to the park. Their home is filled with family pictures and mementos that suddenly need to be raised out of a 14-month-old’s reach. Of course, they also know a heck of a lot more than the average person about civil union protection law.
Nikki Pagano is a junior high teacher in the Naperville 203 School District. Like many schools and businesses, the district follows federal guidelines for benefits — meaning they didn’t have to recognize state-level civil unions. But, shortly before the law changed, the district announced they would. It made a huge difference for the Paganos.
Jamie Pagano had been working as mental health therapist the Salvation Army in downtown, meaning long commutes and long hours. But when she was able to get on Nikki Pagano’s insurance (a benefit long offered to heterosexual couples), she was able to quit the job in the city. She’s joined a local counseling practice that allows her stay home with Cooper during the day. That means spending less money on day care and saving more for college. That means more time together for swim lessons and trips to the zoo.
It’s been life-changing for the couple. But it’s not the same as marriage.
Before civil unions, Jamie had to adopt the son that her wife gave birth to. Since the baby was conceived through in vitro, Jamie wasn’t the “real mom” of her wife’s son. And when Nikki wanted to change her name, she had to apply for a legal name change, which meant running an ad in the paper and paying more than $450. (For straight couples, it costs less than $50.)
After civil unions? The same hoops still exist.
“It grates you and it reminds you of how unequal we are,” Jamie Pagano said. “We end up paying a lot more to have the same things.”
And while they received no in-person negative feedback from being on the front page of the paper, they still don’t hold hands in downtown Naperville. Old habits die hard, even after civil unions.
“Metaphorically, it’s a huge step, but … ” Jamie Pagano said. “It didn’t change everything. We recognize even more so that this isn’t enough.”
Nicole Warmac and Tracey Suppan, Yorkville
It was always there in the background, a buzzing stressor, that little bug that said: what if something goes wrong? You’re just one car accident away from losing everything you’ve worked for.
You might have spent a decade together, but you can’t prove that in court. And you can’t get insurance together. So don’t plan for the long term. Save up, just in case. Stay focused on your career. Don’t take risks. Don’t get sick.
That last one is a bit tricky, though. Like when Tracy Suppan, 42, developed blood clots on her lungs. She’d lost her job and couldn’t get on the insurance that her partner’s employer, a hospital, offered to same-sex couples.
They’d already been together nine years when civil unions became law in June 2011. They got their paperwork in Kendall County on the first day it became available because that was the only day Warmac, 33, could get off. She finished a 12-hour shift, then headed for the courthouse. The paperwork didn’t magically fix all their problems. For instance, if they someday want to move, it will likely be limited to states that recongnize their civil union. (Just 16 states have some sort of protection for civil unions.)
But thanks to Illinois’ new civil union law, Suppan got the treatment she needed. And a bit of that nagging stress faded, at least a little.
As for the rest of their life? Well, they didn’t need the governor’s blessing to be in love.
“I don’t think we felt like anything was going to change because of that piece of paper and it hasn’t,” Warmac said. “I think we’re still very much in love with each other. I don’t think the state saying this is official changed that.”
Donn Bofani and Jerry McManaman, Elgin
They both knew complete knee replacement was going to be a big deal. When Jerry McManaman went in for knee surgery in October 2011, it turned out to be a lot more difficult than either he or his partner, Donn Bofani, expected.
It ended up being a hospital stay, then a week in a nursing home, then countless rehab visits. Prior to the knee surgery, when either Donn or Jerry had to be hospitalized, the other person got peppered with questions from the hospital staff: Who are you? What kind of relationship do you have?
“I used to lie awake at night worrying about how I would handle whatever was ahead of us,” Bofani said.
This time it was different. Bonfani and McManaman had been among the first couples to get a civil union in Kane County. So, when McManaman went in for surgery four months later, Bonfani didn’t have to bring proof of their relationship. It felt like respect.
Would it have been that way before civil unions were legalized? Maybe. Perhaps everything would have been fine. Maybe the hospital or the nursing home wouldn’t have made a big deal. But when there was a hundred other things to worry about — Is he in pain? Where would he sleep? — it was nice to know the legal status wasn’t on the list anymore.
Bofani and McManaman have been together for four decades. They’ve spent 41 Christmases together. They’ve comforted each other as their parents died. And through all those years, they always wondered if Bofani or McManaman had to be taken away in an ambulance, would the other be allowed to ride along? Or would they be alone at the worst possible time?
“We know there are some fighting for equal marriage rights and we support (them) due to the fact it is important to them,” Bofani said. “However in our situation, having a civil union last year and having the document ... is enough for us. It gives us peace of mind and one less thing to worry about as we enter our golden years.”
Oh, and one more thing.
“We filled joint tax returns with the state and got more money back then if we filled as separate,” Bofani said. “I guess that was a plus also.”