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Gays not all wedded to the idea

Times Staff Writer

In the weeks since the California Supreme Court’s historic ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, gay men and lesbians have hugged, kissed, popped bottles of bubbly and danced in the streets.

Some have also looked themselves in the mirror and asked: “I do?”

Beneath the widespread community euphoria at having the right to marry lies some individual ambivalence about actually doing so.

Yes, there will be a rush of weddings beginning Tuesday, the day most counties will start issuing marriage licenses (a few are to begin Monday night). But there will also be questions, though not always voiced aloud:

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Is this the right person? Is this the right time? Is marriage right for me?

“Up until now, we’ve never had to think about those questions,” said the Rev. Neil G. Thomas, senior pastor at Metropolitan Community Church Los Angeles, which was founded to minister to the gay community when many mainline churches wouldn’t.

Gay couples have long held commitment ceremonies, registered as domestic partners or just grown old together in lifelong committed relationships.

But marriage?

“In a sense, it changes nothing,” said Jeffrey Chernin, a family therapist who works with both gay and straight couples.

“But in another sense, it changes everything.”

Some couples welcome the change. Ron Elecciri, 43, who works in television development, and his partner of 11 years, attorney Andy Birnbaum, 38, have been waiting for this ruling since the high court nullified their 2004 San Francisco marriage.

“Both Andy and I did not hesitate to say we’re going to be married again,” Elecciri said. “The only decision we’re not together on is whether we want a big wedding reception or not.”

Other couples face bigger divides. Marcy Israel, a San Luis Obispo wedding photographer, would like to marry her partner of 13 years now that she finally can. But she knows her partner is not as enthusiastic.

“We haven’t had a real in-depth discussion yet, but she questions the whole idea of marriage for anyone,” Israel said.

She said her partner “feels no need of outward reinforcement for what she feels.” Israel, on the other hand, is “more romantic and also more political. I feel that the more gay couples in committed relationships who take this step, the harder it will be to say sorry, you hundred thousand people, but you’re no longer married.”

One West Hollywood professional said that even though he has been with his partner for seven years, and they’re shopping for a house together, “there’s a little ambivalence about marriage.”

“It all came up so suddenly,” said the man, who asked not to be identified because he is reluctant to have intimate details of his personal life “popping up on Google.”

“Straight people enter into dating and courtship with marriage always out there as a possibility throughout the relationship,” he said. “It wasn’t even a possibility for us, and then all of a sudden there’s this looming question: Do we want to get married? It’s this whole new commitment I hadn’t really thought about.”

For gay couples, he said, the decision carries pressure to act quickly, since marriage will no longer be an option if a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage passes in November.

“I think this whole marriage thing is causing more anxiety and fights among gay couples than anything has before,” he said.

Ken Howard, a psychotherapist who works with gay men in West Hollywood, said that for some gay couples marriage raises significant financial issues.

Although marriage brings benefits that can be a boon, especially for low-income couples, it also brings shared responsibilities and debts.

Some financial advisors, for example, counsel gay couples not to register as domestic partners if one or both partners have HIV and could leave the other on the hook for potentially catastrophic medical bills.

“For legal and financial reasons, a couple may not want to be legally tied,” Howard said.

Of course, there’s always the prenuptial agreement.

Some gay couples already sign such agreements when they register as domestic partners, said Steven Stolar, a family attorney in Beverly Hills. But in the excitement and emotion surrounding the recent court ruling, not all couples may think about such practical matters.

“All of a sudden, half of their earnings will be their partners’ earnings,” Stolar said. “And if they want to leave each other, it’s not as easy as just packing a bag and moving out.”

For some, marriage may not be politically palatable. Just as heterosexuals in the 1960s and ‘70s began to challenge marriage as an institution, some gay people resist adopting the mainstream model of marriage and children.

The option of marriage is in some ways a Rorschach test, revealing generational as well as cultural divides. Segments of the community still equate gay liberation with sexual freedom or see marriage as a sexist institution that oppresses women. Others have children, joint mortgages and all the accouterments of mainstream culture.

But few expect such differences to be aired publicly, at least until after the November election.

“With this anti-gay initiative on the ballot, you’re seeing the community coming together like never before,” said Torie Osborn, an advisor to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former director of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

If the experience of gay-marriage pioneers in the Netherlands and Massachusetts is any guide, those who marry in California will be for the most part longtime couples in their 40s and 50s.

But that is also the group with the most ambivalence about marriage, said M.V. Lee Badgett, research director of the Williams Institute of Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA. Badgett estimates that in the first three years, only about half of California’s more than 100,000 same-sex couples noted in the 2000 census will marry -- assuming the constitutional amendment doesn’t pass.

Surveys have found that the younger they are, the more enthusiastic gay men and lesbians tend to be about marriage. But it’s often later in life, when practical and legal considerations concerning having children or buying property come into play, that people take the leap.

In the Netherlands and Massachusetts, people’s views on marriage shifted over time, Badgett said. Lesbians, for example, began to think how marriage between two women -- or two men -- could change an institution they considered inequitable.

Perhaps because he runs adult education programs and coming-out groups for the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, Ruben Romo is comfortable with the idea of taking his time and sorting out his feelings.

Romo, 41, and his partner, Mark Beaty, 40, the center’s grants manager, have been together five years, but they took each step slowly. Romo had a rule: He’d move in with someone only after the relationship had lasted a year. Then he found out that Beaty’s rule was two years. Three years passed before they finally set up house.

“There’s no question in my mind that at some point we’ll get married,” Romo said. “But we’ve seen people make that decision without giving it the weight we think it deserves. We see marriage as something we take incredibly seriously.”

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mary.engel@latimes.com


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