By Will Doig
I remember sitting in the Unitarian church on 14th Street in Washington, D.C., several years ago, watching two gay friends exchange vows and thinking, This is going to be a spectacular breakup. From that pew, I could only envision hopelessly intertwined finances, a web of assets to disentangle, pets to put up for adoption, station wagons to sell, flatware sets to divide.
After all, tattoo removal and 'gay divorce' are growth fields, as John Waters has quipped, and just as lasering an ex's name from biceps is a fairly new process, so is dissolving same-sex unions. 'We've grown from living in the closet with our own apartments to living together in houses we've bought as a couple,' says David Pisarra, a California-based family-law attorney specializing in gay relationships. 'We have nest eggs. We have stocks and dogs.'
And children. And joint savings accounts and retirement funds and shared health benefits. And civil unions and domestic partnerships and, in one little blue state, marriage. But what we don't have is any semblance of uniformity when it comes to the delightful logistics of gay divorce. A straight married couple has the federal government and a couple millennia of precedent behind them. For same-sex couples, where you live and how well you've planned can spell the difference between solvency and bankruptcy, joint custody and estrangement, an amicable division of assets and a suspicious house fire.
Few hard stats exist on gay breakups because most long-term couples can't or don't register with their state, and because some states that formally recognize same-sex couples don't track how often they split up. As of January 2006, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, over 7,300 gay marriages had been recorded in the state, but because divorce statistics do not differentiate between heterosexual and gay couples, it's impossible to know how many such unions remain extant. It is known that of Vermont's nearly 10,000 same-sex civil unions recorded as of August 2006'around 80% of which were performed for nonresidents'only about 100 have been dissolved, but this number is deceptively low. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many gay couples don't formally dissolve their unions, be it for practical reasons, apathy, or legal impediments'while out-of-state couples may enter civil unions in Vermont, state residency is required for legal dissolution.
But because few cities and states recognize gay unions, gay divorce is more accurately defined by slugging it out for accumulated goods and savings. 'It's exactly like divorce, except that a lot of times there's one party that's left themselves very unprotected,' says Pisarra. 'Without the protections of marriage, it can get ugly very quickly.'