At least for a while, Shanon Delaney enjoyed the sweet thrill of marriage. On Valentine's Day 2001, the hair stylist, 32, and his partner wed in a civil-union ceremony. Three years later, that formal recognition made their breakup a little easier to bear. They went to family court and made it official again. Delaney kept the cats; his partner kept the car. "I call it my divorce," Delaney says. "That way everyone can understand what I went through."
Of the 954 civil unions performed for Vermont residents, 29 have so far been formally and clearly dissolved in that state. But the vast majority of Vermont's civil-union licenses, 5,770, have gone to people outside Vermont, and those gay couples who don't wind up happily ever after could enter the same legal no-man's-land they were trying to escape by getting married.
In Texas, a lower-court judge in Beaumont allowed two men who had been wed in Vermont to dissolve their union, but he reversed himself after state attorney general Greg Abbott argued that because Texas law prohibits gay marriage, the state cannot grant a gay divorce. If mediation fails, the only other alternative, says Houston attorney Jerry Simoneaux, is district court, where a judge might, for example, divide assets according to how much each partner contributes. Family court judges can weigh what is fair. "The person who stayed at home would lose a lot," Simoneaux says.
But some states are carefully opening the door to gay divorce. In a closely watched case in Sioux City, Iowa, district court Judge Jeffrey Neary allowed two women to terminate the civil union they got in Vermont. But rather than call it a divorce, his ruling simply dissolved their union and reverted the women to single status. Several Republican lawmakers and a church pastor are challenging the ruling in the Iowa Supreme Court, arguing that that kind of dissolution would implicitly recognize such unions and pave the way to same-sex marriage.
Gay couples who do not have civil unions or "relationship agreements" have few protections. And gay parents can find themselves with no legal right to see the children they helped raise--only biological and adoptive parents have legal standing. On that basis, in 1999 an appeals court in Illinois denied visitation rights to a woman who had raised a daughter with her partner from birth and continued to support the child after their split. "It's sometimes as though the other parent never existed, which is a horrible thing for a child," says Suzanne Goldberg, a professor of law at Rutgers University. Some gay lawyers have complained that clients have wanted to employ anti-gay arguments--like insisting on a biological connection to secure custody--against their estranged partners. Gay divorce, it turns out, is as painful as the straight kind, and a lot more complicated. --By Jyoti Thottam. With reporting by Nathan Thornburgh/Boston, Betsy Rubiner/Des Moines and Wendy Cole/Chicago