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FLORENCE, Ky. - In so many ways, the Yorksmiths are just another married couple living in Florence, Ky. Nicole Yorksmith, 33, gave birth to their son, Grayden, 2½ years ago, and the couple hopes to have another child soon.
She and her spouse have good jobs, they get along with their neighbors, and they took pains to find just the right preschool for Grayden. Yet until they paid a lawyer to draft a series of documents, the family lacked basic rights that most people take for granted, from little things like Nicole's spouse being able to pick up Grayden from school to big ones like visiting one another in the hospital and being entitled to each other's estates.
The legal discrimination stems from one difference between the Yorksmiths and most couples. They are both women. Nicole, a software builder at TriZetto, married Pam Yorksmith, a 40-year-old human resources specialist at Procter & Gamble, in California in 2008 after the couple dated for two years. But because same-sex marriage is not legal in Kentucky, they don't have the rights and privileges most married people take for granted.
Their story is a common one for same-sex couples in the Tri-State who hailed last week's Supreme Court rulings which brought them closer to equal rights with heterosexual couples but fell far short of closing the rights gap.
In two 5-4 rulings, the court threw out part of the Defense of Marriage Act that denied hundreds of federal benefits to same-sex couples and cleared the way for gays and lesbians to once again marry in California.
But the Yorksmiths remain on shaky legal ground that heterosexual couples don't have to think twice about. "We've gone through the process of living wills and creating intention papers that should help Pam retain custody of Grayden should anything happen to me," Nicole said. "But legally, anyone in Nicole's family could fight me for custody and probably win."
Fortunately for the Yorksmiths, most of their family members are supportive and not combative, but the legal hurdles they face demonstrate how far there is to go for same-sex couples who want the same rights and privileges as heterosexual Americans, especially in the states where same-sex marriage isn't recognized, including Ohio and Kentucky where it's constitutionally banned and Indiana where it's outlawed.
"What we end up doing is end-runs around the laws," said Scott Knox, a Cincinnati attorney who specializes in gay rights. "It has always struck me as odd to have to go through all these legal gyrations to build a stable family, which is usually what the law wants us to do."
In Ohio, Knox explained, gay couples who can afford it can establish joint custody through petitioning the juvenile court for a shared custody agreement. Kentucky has no such law.
"The couple has to come up with a couple thousand dollars because they have to have separate lawyers to avoid a conflict of interest," Knox said.
The legal hurdles are even more daunting for John Reeves and Brad Jennings, of Bellevue, Ky., who have been dating for seven years and are planning a commitment ceremony to be held in Covington in October.
They hope to adopt a child. To do so they will have to fight to establish custody but for just one of them.
"We would like to start a family, but only one of us can be declared the parent legally in Kentucky," Jennings said.
Further complicating the adoption process, Jennings and Reeves hope to adopt a child from a state where same-sex couples are recognized as co-guardians. If they are successful, they expect Kentucky to abide by the laws where the adoption originated.
They're not letting the absence of state recognition get in the way of pledging their love to one another before family and friends in an October ceremony.
"It's going to be traditional but not traditional," Jennings said. "A first dance, a dance with our mothers, we'll do some of those traditional things. But at the same time, it's not going to be a standard wedding. We're going to kind of mix it up a little."
In light of the Defense of Marriage Act reversal, Jennings said he and Reeves are considering a trip to Massachusetts before the year ends to make it official with a brief marriage ceremony there, which could potentially enable them to claim marital deductions and Social Security benefits. Federal regulators are still hammering out details of who is eligible for full federal benefits – all same-sex couples who were married in a state where it's legal or just those who reside in such a state.
Despite the legal challenges that remain, same-sex couples have seen changes, sometimes rapid changes in securing rights and benefits in many areas. Businesses, especially larger ones, haven't waited for state and federal governments to grant equal rights. The Yorksmiths and Reeves and Jennings enjoy the same benefits at their workplaces as heterosexual couples.
"I would say that our workplaces do more to make us feel welcome and comfortable than our government," said Reeves, 39, who works for Procter
& Gamble in hair care product supply. In fact, P&G embraces diversity to such an extent that it sponsors Gay, Ally, Bisexual, Lesbian & Transgender Employees (GABLE), members of which marched in last Saturday's Pride parade downtown.
Both couples enjoy partner benefits from their employers. Jennings, 38, is an auditor at Ernst & Young, which he said is equally inclusive. "We both feel very comfortable at work, and that's a very important aspect of our lives," he said.
Jennings marveled at the change in attitudes in the last 20-25 years. "I think that it's been pretty amazing. When we were growing up, to be gay was more marginalized, and now it seems to be anti-gay is more marginalized."
Pam Yorksmith is also heartened by changes in attitude. Most of her neighbors are straight couples in their 50s and 60s, and they're friendly with her family.
"If you let people get to know that you are a good person inside and out, they're usually going to like you," she said. "The more you can let people in, the better."
The Supreme Court's decision on the California case that sought to affirm Proposition 8, the voter-enacted ban on gay marriage, was thrown out on the grounds that the plaintiffs had no standing. The decision effectively restored gay marriage there, but it fell short of ruling the ban unconstitutional. That roils Pam Yorksmith.
"I'm a little heartbroken that they didn't rule Prop. 8 is unconstitutional, but (dismissing the case) is a giant step toward where our country is headed, and it makes me very happy," she said
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