Marriage equality advances in Washington state; Senate floor vote scheduled for Wednesday

On Monday, the Washington state House Judiciary Committee voted 7–6 along party lines to send a marriage-equality bill to the floorfor a vote. A Senate committee voted similarly last week, according to the Seattle Post Intelligencer.

gregoire.chris

Gov. Chris Gregoire

The Senate has scheduled a floor vote for Wednesday, and a majority have already announced they’ll vote for the bill. Supporters say House passage is also assured. Gov. Christine Gregoire supports equality.

Washington is a referendum state so once the bill passes and the governor signs, the opposition will have until June to collect 120,557 valid signatures to put the issue on the November ballot.

If marriage equality becomes law, Washington will be the seventh state to perform same-sex marriages. The state already has domestic partnerships.

Two additional states — Maine and California — passed marriage equality before voters rescinded it.

—  David Taffet

New year adds two new civil union states

Gov. Neil Abercrombie

Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed the civil union law in Hawaii in February

The new year begins with two new states offering civil unions.

On Jan. 1, Hawaii and Delaware join the growing number of states offering some form of relationship recognition for same-sex couples.

Currently, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington, D.C. have marriage equality.

New Jersey, Illinois and Rhode Island offer civil unions that are equal to marriage by law but have been fraught with complaints about unequal treatment.

California, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Washington state and Wisconsin have a variety of domestic partnership laws that offer some recognition and benefits.

New York, Illinois and Rhode Island were 2011 additions.

The Republican-controlled legislature in New Hampshire has a pending bill to repeal marriage equality in that state, but the governor has promised to veto it, if passed.

The new year also brings a new law in California that recognizes LGBT contributions along with those of other groups in the state’s education curriculum.

And although Prop. 8 stopped same-sex marriage in the state, California will begin granting divorces to couples who were married in the state but cannot divorce elsewhere.

—  David Taffet

Kaleidoscope joins the fight for equality

New London-based advocacy organization is getting a warm welcome from British politicians and the international media

Phyllis Guest
Taking Notes

As Pride celebrations continue around North Texas, a new London-based LGBT organization is getting off to a sensational start.

Kaleidoscope International Diversity Trust has clearly been in the works for some time; it already has an attractive website, KaleidoscopeTrust.com, with a mission statement, backgrounders, personal stories, donation options and a newsletter free for the asking.

Kaleidoscope — the instrument, not the organization — was named by its 19th century Scottish inventor, Sir David Brewster, who combined three Greek words: kalos = beautiful, eides = form and scopos = watcher.
It seems a fine choice of organizational name, for LGBTs are beautiful in our variety, formed by countless influences, and ever so watchful.

Kaleidoscope — the organization, not the instrument — made BBC World News and thus, the local NPR station very early the next day, when two of its founders were interviewed.

One was an American who works in the United Kingdom, the other a Nigerian who has asylum in the U.K. The interview was brief and quite straightforward, ending with both men acknowledging how far their adopted country has come in terms of LGBT rights and recognitions, but asserting it still has far to go. For while the U.K. recognizes domestic partnerships, the American must fly home to New York to marry his guy, and the Nigerian must fight prejudice against his color and his sexuality.

Yet Kaleidoscope’s welcome by official Britain could scarcely have been warmer.

On Monday, Member of Parliament and Minister for International Development Alan Duncan issued a statement welcoming the Kaleidoscope Trust, labeling it “outrageous that people across the world are still subject to arrest, detention or even death” because they are LGBT, and reminding the world that the U.K. had in March 2011 “published an action plan” aimed at fighting discrimination worldwide.
(Not incidentally, MP Duncan is gay and a Conservative and lists his partner in official biographies.)

That’s not all. Kaleidoscope’s launch merited a House of Commons reception “hosted by Speaker John Bercow MP,” the organization’s honorary president. Plus its director is Lance Price, a prominent journalist who worked both for the BBC and for the Labour government of Tony Blair.

Joining them in praising Kaleidoscope were Prime Minister David Cameron, Labour Party leader Ed Milliband and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.

Amazing to hear competitive politicians speaking with one voice. But then Bercow, Cameron, Milliband and many of their colleagues are Oxford “old boys.”

The outlier, Clegg, graduated from Cambridge; perhaps he is allowed into the club because he speaks four languages.

On its website, Kaleidoscope uses a quote from Chinese philosopher Confucius and another from United Nations Secretary Ban Ki-Moon, plus a speech Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave to a U.N. panel on decriminalizing homosexuality.

Its theme: “This wave of hate must stop.” And in Britain, MPs, straight media stars and gay rights activists are lining up to support the group.
Far and away the cutest and — if his BBC comments were an indication — the most charming is Bisi Alimi. He studied theater at the University of Lagos until he was expelled for being gay and was the first Nigerian to announce his sexuality on TV, after which his family threw him out, his bosses fired him and many strange people threatened to murder him outright. Now he is studying at an English university and works with a number of human rights/gay rights groups.

By contrast, the most appalling of gay rights activists is London-based “pastor” Rowland Jide Macaulay. For some reason, Kaleidoscope chose to include Macaulay’s essay, “Leave My Father Alone,” on its website.

His main points were that Nigerians should not criticize his father’s love of him, the gay son, and that his father still disapproved of him. Then Macaulay wrote this: “At least we agreed that homosexuals cannot be compared to thieves, prostitutes, drunkards and robbers, but to dwarfs and people with physically (sic) disability.” (Feel free to object online; I did.)

Further, as coverage of the Kaleidoscope kickoff pointed out, “At present, homosexuality is illegal in 76 countries [and] at least five countries — Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Mauritania and Sudan — have used the death penalty against gay people.” (I’d say more; think of the treatment of LGBTs on much of Asia’s mainland and on nearby islands.)

In any case, Kaleidoscope has work to do at home and abroad. But the Guardian of London reported that it “intends to leave U.K. gay rights campaigning to the long-established advocacy group Stonewall.”
Stonewallers and other progressives, are we up for the fight? What can we do here in Dallas? Remember: On Jan. 27, 2011, mere hours after his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama proclaimed, “LGBT rights are not special rights; they are human rights.”

Yes. Sure. But the fight for human rights is ongoing because, as George Orwell knew, some of our fellow humans will always believe that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
We’re among the others.

Phyllis Guest is a longtime activist on political and LGBT issues and a member of Stonewall Democrats of Dallas.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 30, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Groups hope couples, lawyers will take the parenting pledge

New guidelines for same-sex parenting and custody aimed at stopping LGBTs from denying parental rights to ex-partners

Mary-Bonauto
GLAD’S MARY BONAUTO | (Photo courtesy InfinityPortraitDesign.com)

Dana Rudolph  |  Keen News Service
lisakeen@me.com

Some of the most contentious lawsuits involving the rights of LGBT people have occurred when the biological parent of a child uses anti-LGBT laws to try and deny the child’s non-biological parent custody or visitation.

But several LGBT legal organizations have published a revised set of standards aimed at stopping such behavior, and they’re hoping parents and attorneys will take a pledge to abide by them.

The publication is “Protecting Families: Standards for LGBT Families,” produced by Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and NCLR’s National Family Law Advisory Council. It encourages lawyers to support and respect LGBT parents even when legal rights do not, and advises parents and lawyers to honor children’s relationships with both parents, seek custody resolutions that minimize conflict, and use litigation only as a last resort.

Mary Bonauto, the director of GLAD’s Civil Rights Project, authored the original version of the standards in 1999. She said the intent of the document is to urge same-sex parents to use whatever parental protections are available in their states, “for the sake of your children.”

These protections may assist with issues such as medical decision-making, but may also help maintain both parents’ relationships with the children when the couple breaks up.

The revised document is updated to reflect new laws in several states recognizing the relationships of same-sex couples, whether through marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships. But it cautions that same-sex parents should not rely on such laws to protect their parental relationships with their children.

“[W]e still have a huge architecture of discrimination against same-sex relationships,” said Bonauto. Many states do not recognize them at all or may not treat them in the same way as opposite-sex relationships. This may jeopardize the relationships of non-biological, non-adoptive parents to their children.

Even in Massachusetts, the first state to allow same-sex couples to marry, courts may not look favorably upon a non-biological parent who has not also done a “second-parent adoption” of a spouse’s biological child, she said.

“There are still very parent-specific protections you should try to avail yourself of,” said Bonauto.

Some protections may be available even in states that have constitutional bans against marriage for same-sex couples.

If parents do break up, Bonauto said, going to court is damaging financially and emotionally. And it can destroy the couple’s ability to work together as parents.

There have been a number of recent cases across the country in which a biological or adoptive parent has tried to claim the other parent has no parental rights. Best known among them is the case of Janet Jenkins and Lisa Miller, which has grabbed headlines nationally.

Miller, the biological mother, asked courts in both Virginia and Vermont to deny Jenkins visitation and custody, and has taken issues to the U.S. Supreme Court five times, without success each time.

Miller was eventually ruled in contempt of court for defying a Vermont court order that she allow Jenkins visitation. The court then granted legal custody to Jenkins.

But Miller went into hiding with the girl at the end of 2009, and a man accused of helping her leave the U.S. was arraigned in a federal court last April.

Many similar cases exist, and the outcomes have been mixed.

The Delaware Supreme Court issued a ruling in March upholding the right of a woman to be identified as a de facto parent of a child she had been raising with her former same-sex partner — a child the partner adopted but that the woman herself did not.

The Nebraska Supreme Court in August ruled that a non-biological mom has a right, under the doctrine of in loco parentis — which recognizes a person who acts as a parent — to a custody and visitation hearing regarding the child she and her former partner were raising together.

But the North Carolina Supreme Court in December 2010 voided a lesbian mother’s second-parent adoption. The majority on the court said state statutes permit adoptions only if the existing parent gives up all parental rights or is married to the person seeking to adopt, as in the case of a stepparent.

Other cases with biological mothers trying to deny parental rights to non-biological mothers have reached the appellate or state supreme court levels in the past few years in states including Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin — again with mixed results.

In several of these cases, notably Miller v. Jenkins, attorneys from conservative legal organizations such as Liberty Counsel and the Alliance Defense Fund have represented the biological mothers.

“They are making an industry of it,” Bonauto noted of the groups. But many individual, private attorneys, including ones in the LGBT community, are also representing biological mothers against non-biological mothers in such cases.

GLAD will soon be launching an online pledge where attorneys can promise not to take these cases and to endorse the revised standards. Parents, too, can pledge to uphold them.

New Jersey attorney William Singer, a member of the Family Law Advisory Council, said he hopes attorneys will discuss the standards with parents, not just at the time of breakups, but also at the time of family creation, “to try and impress upon both parents why it’s so important to maintain continuity of relationships for their children.”

The standards are available via GLAD’s Web site, GLAD.org.

© 2011 by Keen News Service. All rights reserved.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 16, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

WATCH: Anti-gay protesters break out Prop 2 signs to fight DP benefits in San Antonio

Last week we posted this story from Sam Sanchez at QSanAntonio about how anti-gay forces are fighting San Antonio’s plan to offer domestic partner benefits to municipal workers. On Monday, a group called “Voices for Marriage” held a press conference outside City Hall to oppose the plan. And as you can see above, they broke out their six-year-old signs from the fight over Prop 2, Texas’ marriage amendment. KENS Channel 5 reports:

Extending benefits to city employees in same sex relationships would cost between $300,000 and $400,000 a year — a small fraction of the total $2.2 billion budget which would go into effect October 1.

The move would also put San Antonio in the same category as many other Texas cities and companies, including USAA and Rackspace that currently offer benefits to domestic partners.

However, a local group calling itself “Voices for Marriage” protested the proposed change on Monday outside city hall. The group, citing religious views and current state law, opposes any extension of benefits to domestic partnerships.

Pastor Gerald Ripley issued a “fact sheet” to those in attendance, listing 14 reasons why the group opposes the change. The document said, “We believe marriage is a legally binding relationship between one man and one woman” and “a vote for domestic partner benefits is a vote against upholding the institution of marriage”.

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who backs the change, said the city needs to extend benefits to domestic partners in order to stay competitive with other cities and companies across the country that already offer similar benefits. The mayor dismissed oncerns by many protestors over the cost of benefits as “a smokescreen for their dislike of gays and lesbians.”

Watch video from the press conference below.

—  John Wright

Nevada gay households up by 87 percent

CRISTINA SILVA  |  Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — The number of same-sex couples sharing a home in Nevada nearly doubled from 2000 to 2010, revealing a budding constituency in a state where voters have banned gay marriage, but embraced domestic partnerships.

Nearly 4,600 homes in Nevada were headed by lesbian couples at the end of the last decade, according to Census data released last week, while 4,724 households were headed by two male partners. The data shows that the number of gay and lesbian households in Nevada jumped 87 percent during the last decade, and about a quarter of those couples are raising children. Lesbian couples were more likely than the male couples to have children at home.

In all, Nevada had more than 9,000 households led by same-sex couples in 2010, up from fewer than 5,000 such households counted in 2000.

To be sure, same-sex couples living together remained a minuscule population among Nevada’s more than a million households. But their swelling ranks reflect Nevada’s increasingly gay friendly stance less than a decade after 67 percent of the state’s voters defined marriage as “between a male and female person.”

“Folks who are LGBT may not have been excited (before) to move here from, say California, where they enjoy a lot of legal protections,” said Michael Ginsburg, southern Nevada director for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “Now that Nevada is catching up, that may not be a factor for people anymore.”

It’s also possible some of the new same-sex households reflect an increased willingness among gay couples to come out to the government, rather than actual growth. The Census doesn’t capture the overall gay population in Nevada, because it doesn’t allow single people to identify their sexual orientation.

Gay activists insist Nevada is home to many more gay couples who cohabitate, and that the 2010 Census numbers only reflect people who were comfortable identifying themselves as gay to Census takers.

“Are there even more? Absolutely,” said Candice Nichols, executive director for The Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada. “I don’t think it’s a clear cut view of how many same sex households there are actually are in Nevada. People don’t identify for various reasons, it just depends on their own comfort levels.”

Ginsburg said he couldn’t recall if he or his live-in partner had confirmed that they were a couple to the Census. He wondered if gay couples were not coming out to the federal government because the survey does not allow unmarried participants to identify themselves by specific terms, such as transgender or domestic partners. The questionnaire asks homeowners to identify the people sharing their roof under specific familiar categories, such as child, parent or spouse. Couples who live together but are not married may only self-identify themselves as an unmarried partner.

“You could look at those Census numbers and say, ‘Wow, there are no gay people in this state,’ which is laughable,” Ginsburg said.

The Las Vegas Valley, where most of the state’s 2.6 million people live, is home to the majority of Nevada’s same-sex households.

As with many states, Nevada has become more gay friendly in recent years, passing local and state laws recognizing the rights of domestic partners. The state Legislature passed a law recognizing domestic partners in 2009, but only after then Republican Gov Jim Gibbons vetoed it. State leaders went further this year, passing a series of laws that extended discrimination protections to transgender people and prohibited housing or employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Casino executives, the state’s business elite, have supported the pro-equality measures.

Still, overturning a gay marriage ban passed by Nevada voters in 2002 could take years because of the state’s complicated constitutional amendment process.

Nichols said marriage equality proponents in Nevada agree their best option is to wait for the federal government to recognize gay marriage.

“It’s going to be much easier for the states to say, ‘Wait a minute, the federal government finds this unconstitutional,”’ she said.

—  John Wright

Debate rages over same-sex marriage in several states as polls show growing support

DAVID KLEPPER | Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — A flurry of activity in efforts to legally recognize gay relationships or ban same-sex marriage is reminding advocates that even though polls indicate growing acceptance, the debate is far from settled in U.S. states.

Rhode Island is pondering a proposal to allow civil unions, a compromise that arose after it became clear there weren’t enough votes in the state legislature to approve same-sex marriage. Minnesota lawmakers voted to put a constitutional marriage ban on the ballot, and the mayor of New York spoke out strongly in favor of same-sex marriage as talks continue in his state.

In Rhode Island, gay marriage advocates say they’re unsatisfied with the proposal to offer civil unions, which provide many of the same legal benefits of marriage without calling it that.

“There’s a special status when you say ‘my wife,’ and civil unions don’t give that,” said Annie Cronin-Silva, of West Warwick, who married a woman in neighboring Massachusetts in 2008. “But things are changing. It’s coming. It’s just so hard to wait.”

Gay marriage is allowed in Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and the District of Columbia. Several other states offer civil unions or domestic partnerships instead. Illinois, Delaware and Hawaii enacted civil unions this year. The debate continues to rage in several other states.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Thursday warned lawmakers in his state that they will be remembered as civil rights obstructionists if they block attempts to pass gay marriage. Opponents have committed $1.5 million to defeat the efforts, matching the amount raised by supporters.

Minnesota lawmakers voted a week ago to put a constitutional prohibition against gay marriage on the 2012 ballot. Voters in 29 states have already added similar amendments, and gay marriage supporters hope to make Minnesota the first state to reject such an amendment.

“It’s a changed debate in Minnesota and in the nation,” said Monica Meyer, executive director of OutFront Minnesota. “I’m hoping we can ride that sea change. But we know we have a very big challenge in front of us.”

Even though Massachusetts considers Cronin-Silva and her wife, Melanie Silva, legally married, Rhode Island doesn’t. They’ve had legal agreements drawn up granting rights that are automatic through marriage, such as making medical decisions in an emergency.

Civil unions could spare gay couples an expensive trip to a lawyer, Cronin-Silva said. But she said it’s no substitute for marriage.

Groups on both sides of the debate have long pointed to polls that appear to advance their agenda. But in the past nine months, several major surveys are showing a trend of increasing support for gay marriage.

A Gallup poll released this month found that a majority of Americans believe same-sex marriage should be legal. In 1996, Gallup found that only 27 percent of Americans supported gay marriage. It’s just the latest of several major surveys showing that a slim majority of Americans now support gay marriage.

“I thought for a while it might be one fluky poll,” said Gregory Lewis, a professor of public management and policy at Georgia State University who tracks public attitudes on gay marriage. “But now it’s just one after another. It does seem like this year’s polls are noticeably different even from last year.”

An ABC-Washington Post survey in March found that 53 percent of Americans support gay marriage. An Associated Press poll in August found that 52 percent of Americans think the federal government should extend legal recognition to married gay couples, up from 46 percent the year before.

Opponents note that public opinion polls in Maine and California showed majority support for gay marriage in those states, too — right before voters rejected gay marriage measures. Even in left-leaning Rhode Island, efforts to pass marriage rights stalled this year after legislators balked.

The polls show at least two factors contributing to changing attitudes.

For one, younger Americans of all political persuasions say they’re more tolerant of homosexuality than older generations.

Meghan McCain, the daughter of former Republican presidential candidate and gay marriage opponent Sen. John McCain, is one example of a prominent Republican who says the party’s opposition to gay marriage is causing it to turn off younger voters.

Madeline Koch, a 24-year-old heterosexual Republican, told Minnesota lawmakers to oppose the gay marriage amendment because it would put inequality in the state Constitution.

Second, while older Americans identifying themselves as Republicans remain firmly opposed to gay marriage, Democrats and independents appear to be changing their minds, Lewis said. The Gallup poll found that 69 percent of self-described Democrats support gay marriage, compared with 56 percent the year before.

“The generational changes don’t explain everything,” Lewis said. “There’s a fair amount of Americans who are just changing their minds.”

Gay marriage opponents concede that surveys show increased support for gay marriage. But they say polls are different from ballot questions.

“A poll is just a poll,” said Chris Plante, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage-Rhode Island. “The reality is, when people go to the voting booth they protect marriage. Legislatures including our own in Rhode Island recognize that people don’t want it.”

Plante points to similar predictions made about the demise of the anti-abortion movement after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing abortion rights. Nearly 40 years later, anti-abortion groups have successfully pushed for more restrictions on abortion throughout the U.S.

“They think the old folks will just die out and they’ll win this with the young people,” he said. “Maybe for a season. But I believe we will see young people say, ‘Wait a second. This was an awful social experiment.’ You have to take the long view.”

From the other side of the debate, New York Mayor Bloomberg also endorsed viewing it in context. A measure to legalize gay marriage in the state is being negotiated among Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders, but Cuomo has said he won’t put it to a vote until enough legislators are on board.

The billionaire mayor has lobbied Republican state senators, for whom he is a major campaign funder, but no senator has committed to switching camps.

“As other states recognize the rights of same-sex couples to marry, we cannot stand by and watch,” Bloomberg said Thursday in a Manhattan speech. “To do so would be to betray our civic values and history — and it would harm our competitive edge in the global economy.”

—  John Wright

What’s Brewing: Boehner defends House hearing on ‘defending marriage’; civil unions in Delaware

Your weekday morning blend from Instant Tea:

1. A U.S. House subcommittee is holding a hearing this morning on “defending marriage.” Republican House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday defended the hearing as a “legitimate” use of government resources. Those scheduled to testify include anti-gay activist Maggie Gallagher, chair of the National Organization for Marriage.

2. The Delaware House on Thursday voted 26-15 to approve a measure that would legalize civil unions. The bill, which already cleared the Senate, now goes to Gov. Jack Markell, who has said he will sign it. Delaware would be the eighth state to allow civil unions or domestic partnerships.

3. Today is the Day of Silence.

—  John Wright

Coleman files bill to repeal Texas’ marriage ban

Rep. Garnet Coleman

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, has filed a joint resolution that would repeal the state’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Coleman has filed a similar resolution in each session since the constitutional amendment was placed on the ballot by the Legislature in 2005.

In order to pass, the resolution would need a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate. Needless to say, this isn’t going to happen, but hey, you’ve gotta start somewhere. If Coleman’s resolution were to pass, repeal of the amendment would still need to be approved by a simple majority of voters and would appear on the ballot in November 2011.

Unfortunately, a repeal of the constitutional amendment is necessary before Texas can grant same-sex couples any form of relationship recognition, including civil unions or domestic partnerships. That’s because the broadly worded amendment prohibits the state or a political subdivision from creating or recognizing any legal status identical or similar to marriage.

The full text of Coleman’s H.J.R. 102 is after the jump.

—  John Wright

New Facebook statuses applauded by gay users

Civil union, domestic partnership added to relationship options

JOCELYN NOVECK  |  Associated Press

NEW YORK — Jay Lassiter is no longer “in a relationship.”

Let’s clarify that: Lassiter, a media adviser for political campaigns who lives in Cherry Hill, N.J., is still with his partner of nearly eight years, Greg Lehmkuho. But since Thursday, when Facebook expanded its romantic-status options, Lassiter’s profile there echoes his relationship’s legal status: “Domestic partnership.”

It may not be a life-altering change. After all, you can call yourself anything you want on a social network. And Facebook is merely that.

But, Lassiter notes: “I’m no different from all those other Facebook users whose identity is tied up with their Facebook pages, for better or for worse.”

And so, he says: “It’s high time. It’s an affirming gesture. It’s sort of one tiny step for gays, but a giant leap for gay rights.”

Facebook’s addition of civil unions and domestic partnerships to the list of relationships its users can pick from came after talks with gay rights organizations, including GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

The social network has “sent a clear message in support of gay and lesbian couples to users across the globe,” said GLAAD’s president, Jarrett Barrios. “By acknowledging the relationships of countless loving and committed same-sex couples in the U.S. and abroad, Facebook has set a new standard of inclusion for social media.”

He added that the new status options, available to Facebook users in the U.S., Canada, Britain, France and Australia, will serve as an important reminder that legal marriage is not an option for gay couples in most states.

Only Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Washington, D.C. allow same-sex marriages. This week Hawaii becomes the seventh state to permit civil unions or similar legal recognition for gay couples.

Of course, there’s also a Facebook option to say “It’s complicated” — and that’s exactly how some users felt about the new changes. Because, for people both gay and straight, more options mean more decisions to make: What exactly is my relationship, and what should I call it?

“You go into a store and there are 27 kinds of soda, and sometimes it would be easier if there were just Coke and Pepsi,” explains Erik Rueter, who works in marketing at an educational nonprofit institution in Pittsburgh.

To Rueter, the essence of his relationship is crystal clear: He and his partner, Robb, will be together forever. “We complete each other’s sentences,” he says. “We’ll be sitting there in the nursing home, gumming up each other’s food, chasing each other in our wheelchairs.”

Two years ago, Rueter, 34, proposed to his partner on bended knee, despite the fact that in Pennsylvania they cannot marry. They’ve been engaged ever since, and that’s been his Facebook status — until Thursday, when he changed it to domestic partnership.

But Rueter is conflicted about the change.

“Part of me wants to go back to ‘engaged’ — because I still am,” he says. “Part of me wants to say ‘married,’ as in, ‘I don’t care what the law says.’ And part of me says, ‘It’s just Facebook!”’

And then ANOTHER part of Rueter tells him just how powerful and influential Facebook is, with well over 500 million users across the globe. “Just having the option to say, ‘This is what my relationship is’ is a really good thing,” he says.

It can be a good thing for some straight Facebook users, as well. Michael Stimson, a Scot who lives in Marseille, France, is not married to his partner, Izzy (short for Isabelle), but they live together and have a young son. He’s just changed his status from blank to domestic partnership.

For Stimson, it helps to clarify to other users with whom he’s chatting that he is not, well, available. “People do flirt with you on the Internet,” he says. “I like to put them in the picture a wee bit, so there’s no confusion.”

Izzy approves of his decision. “Most people that you speak with on Facebook are people you don’t know,” she says, speaking in French from home in Marseille. “This makes things more clear.”

Of course, there are no political overtones to the couple’s change in status. In the United States, though, there is a passionate debate over gay marriage. Lassiter, the campaign adviser from New Jersey, changed his status from “in a relationship” to “married” last year in an act of political defiance, he says, when the state legislature rejected a bid to recognize gay marriage.

But it just didn’t feel right, and he changed it back to “in a relationship” months later. Besides the fact that “married” wasn’t accurate, “I’m not really the marrying type,” he says. “Me and my partner have an equilibrium as things are.”

But “in a relationship” made it sound like a high-school relationship, rather than one that’s lasted a number of years.

So the new status feels better, says Lassiter. And he’s been encouraged by the positive feedback he’s gotten on just the first day from Facebook friends — including people from as far back as high school — giving him a thumbs-up.

Lassiter also thinks the change is most important for gay people — especially younger ones — living in areas of the country where their sexual orientation is less accepted than in the liberal Northeast.

“For those people, it legitimizes being in a gay relationship,” he says.

And so, maybe a social network can be something of an agent of social change.

After all, Lassiter says, “As Facebook goes, so goes the world.”

—  John Wright