First Comes Love by Lisa Bennett

Nine years ago, my best friend and I made a plan to get together for a lonely hearts Valentine's Day dinner. She had just left a marriage, I another failed relationship. I invited another single friend, David, to join us, thinking he and my best friend might hit it off. Wouldn't that be nice?
 
There was just one problem: Halfway through our lobsters and wine, I realized I was in love with her. Not just attracted, but deeply and profoundly in love. Poor David never saw it coming. But, fortunately for me, Kate realized that she, too, was in love with me.
 
As we celebrate our nine-year anniversary this Feb. 14, I could not feel more happy, or more married. We've had a private commitment ceremony, and a public one. We've helped each other through struggles with our families. We've moved five times. We've willed each other all our worldly possessions. And we have become parents.
 
So why can't we legally marry?
 
No state in the nation yet grants same-sex couples the right to marry. Federal law has even gone so far as to state it would not recognize such a marriage if some state became the first to do so, as one inevitably will. Gay and lesbian Americans who fall in love with foreign nationals here on a visa have no chance to sponsor them for immigration purposes, although gays and lesbians in 15 other countries do.
 
A few states have enacted laws to address some of these inequities. Vermont grants civil unions, which provide all the state-level rights and responsibilities of marriage to same-sex couples (although it remains unclear whether this requires that couples spend the rest of their days in the Green Mountain State to maintain these protections). California, Connecticut, Hawaii and the District of Columbia provide certain protections to same-sex couples under domestic partner or similar laws.
 
Yet the reality is that numerous other countries are putting us to shame.
 
Belgium last month became the second country, following the Netherlands, to allow same-sex couples to marry. And Canada appears well on its way to becoming the third after a September 2002 ruling from the Quebec Superior Court declared that the opposite-sex definition of marriage is discriminatory and unjustified under the nation's constitution.
 
Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Portugal and Sweden also grant gay and lesbian couples protections that are not as comprehensive as marriage but are better than anything offered in the United States. For example, France grants same-sex couples the right to extend social security protections to each other, file joint tax returns and assume certain inheritance rights.
 
In the United States, in contrast, when gay people die, their partners are ineligible for Social Security survivor benefits. When it comes to income taxes, same-sex couples are effectively considered strangers, even if every penny of their income was blended, every expense shared. And there is no assumption of inheritance rights for same-sex couples, no matter how many decades they may have lived together as family.
 
We have a long way to go in the fight for equal rights in America, and we will not stop fighting until we win. Yet this Valentine's Day, perhaps the most important way you can show your love for your partner is by drawing up the legal documents that will help protect your relationship, especially in the most vulnerable times we all sooner or later face, such as sickness and death.
 
Among the most important legal documents for same-sex couples: domestic partner agreements, durable powers of attorney for finances, health care proxies, hospital visitation authorizations, last wills and testaments, living wills - and, if you are parents or prospective parents, donor and co-parenting agreements.
 
You can download these sample legal documents and search for a GLBT-friendly attorney in your area to draw up the documents on the Human Rights Campaign's FamilyNet website.
 
Doing so won't provide your family with all the rights you deserve. But it will give you the best protections that are available to you right now. And that isn't such a bad way to celebrate and honor your love.
 
Originally published on Hipmama.com in 2003. Laws in many jurisdictions have since changed. Lisa Bennett runs the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's FamilyNet, the most comprehensive and up-to-date resource on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and their families. Click here to visit HRC FamilyNet.