Separation Issues

6.9.2007

By Will Doig

The cost of Janet Miller-Jenkins's custody battle with her ex-partner, Lisa, was more psychic than monetary, due to the dearth of rules and standards for gay divorce. Their separation became national news when, in 2003, three years after their civil union in Vermont, they broke up and Lisa moved to Virginia with their baby daughter, Isabella. As things soured, Lisa, the biological mother, began trying to keep Janet from seeing Isabella. Janet tried to get custody, and the case became a showdown between not only two ex-lovers, but between two states with very different ideologies.

'When Lisa opened the case [in Virginia], it was right on the West Virginia line. It was really backwoods, one of the worst places to bring up any gay issue,' says Janet. 'They said to Lisa, 'You're the biological mother? Then she's no more than a friend,' referring to me. We had been in court for nine months in Vermont; we had all sorts of evidence and orders, and they wouldn't even allow my legal team to show that information.'

When I last spoke to Janet, she'd visited Isabella the day before'the first time she'd seen her daughter in 2 1/2 years. 'My ex-partner insisted on being there,' she says, 'so it was weird, but my daughter was fantastic. She remembered me. She just turned 5.' Lisa had joined a conservative church and renounced her homosexuality when she moved to Virginia. According to Janet, Lisa seemed crazy at their most recent custody trial. 'She just talked in circles and loops. I didn't need any witnesses'all I needed was her on the stand talking.' Janet says that after Lisa's performance, the Virginia court told her they'd enforce an order from Vermont awarding Janet visitation rights, and on April 30 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, effectively upholding the Vermont ruling. 'It really seems to be coming to an end now,' Janet says.

A state-sanctioned union doesn't guarantee a trouble-free separation and can sometimes complicate it. 'We never got a domestic partnership, and from what I understand from my lawyer friends, it's actually a good thing we didn't,' says Tim Kanaley, 37, a federal government employee in D.C. who broke up with his partner of nine years in January after finding out he'd been having an affair. They had bought a house 50-50 and sold it the same way; otherwise their lives had stayed fairly separate. They had no kids, shared health benefits, or notable joint finances; their salaries had always been similiar. Unlike many other couples, they largely managed to go their separate ways in five months, a clean break with few entanglements, their belongings relatively neatly divided.

That is, except for one major asset. 'The only other thing we acquired while together as a couple is friendships,' says Kanaley. After several years together, sorting out his friends from yours can feel like trying to remember whose boxer shorts are whose. 'Since the breakup, we've both approached our friend assets differently,' Kanaley says. 'I went to my core friends, people who I knew from before we were together, and he's really reached out to the group of friends we have in common. It seems like he's establishing that group of friends as his, sort of taking them over.'

I sometimes wonder which half of the couple whose ceremony I attended in D.C. would lay claim to me, a 'friend asset.' (For the record, they're still happily ever after.) Enmeshing assets with a partner's isn't incidental to a relationship'in a sense, it is the relationship. Like tattooing their name on your skin, it's a signal that you're in for the long haul. But not even tattoos are indelible. Says Janet: 'In the end, these divorces are nothing more than one party being kind of bitter and wanting more control.'

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