Sonoma County demonstrates why I support marriage equality

Because for too many people in the world nothing less than marriage confers any domestic partner’s rights at all, no matter what other legal “protections” and arrangements are put into place.

Clay Greene and his partner of 20 years, Harold Scull, lived in Sebastopol, California. As long-time partners, they had named each other beneficiaries of their respective estates and agents for medical decisions. As 2008 began, Scull was 88 years old and in deteriorating health. Greene, 11 years younger, was physically strong, but beginning to show signs of cognitive impairment. As Scull’s health declined, it became apparent that they would need assistance, but the men resisted outside help.

In April of 2008, Scull fell down the front steps of their home. Greene immediately called an ambulance and Scull was taken to the hospital. There, the men’s nightmare began. While Scull was hospitalized, Deputy Public Guardians went to the men’s home, took photographs, and commented on the desirability and quality of the furnishings, artwork, and collectibles that the men had collected over their lifetimes.

Ignoring Greene entirely, the County petitioned the Court for conservatorship of Scull’s estate. Outrageously referring to Greene only as a “roommate” and failing to disclose their true relationship, the County continued to treat Scull as if he had no family. The County sought immediate temporary authority to revoke Scull’s powers of attorney, to act without further notice, and to liquidate an investment account to pay for Scull’s care. Then, despite being granted only limited powers, and with undue haste, the County arranged for the sale of the men’s personal property, cleaned out their home, terminated their lease, confiscated their truck, and eventually disposed of all of the men’s worldly possessions, including family heirlooms, at a fraction of their value and without any proper inventory or determination of whose property was being sold.

Adding further insult to grave injury, the county removed Greene from their home and confined him to a nursing home against his will—a different placement from his partner. Greene was kept from seeing Scull during this time, and his telephone calls were limited. Three months after Scull was hospitalized, he died, without being able to see Greene again.

“Because of the county’s actions, Clay missed the final months he should have had with his partner of 20 years,” said Greene’s trial attorney Anne Dennis of Santa Rosa. “Compounding this horrific tragedy, Clay has literally nothing left of the home he had shared with Harold or the life he was living up until the day that Harold fell, because he has been unable to recover any of his property or his beloved cats—who are feared dead. The only memento Clay has is a photo album that Harold painstakingly put together for Clay during the last three months of his life.”

I still think society would be vastly improved on many levels if there was a purely secular domestic partnership registry to allow people to name one other person (whether a sexual relationship exists or not) as their closest chosen kin and “marriage” reverted to being purely a religious ceremony, but until that happens then there needs to be marriage equality to protect people’s rights and dignities with respect to their domestic partnerships.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, law & order

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15 replies

  1. I would like to note that this story is about a lot more than marriage equality; people should not have to get married to have their relationships respected and we don’t know if Harold and Clay even wanted to be married. What is disturbing here is that they did everything ‘by the book’ in terms of getting advance directives and other paperwork squared away, and that was rampantly ignored by the County of Sonoma.

    • meloukhia, totally agree that this is about more than marriage equality, and I don’t know whether Harold and Clay wanted to be married. Their wishes and legal directives should have been respected anyway.
      The biggest issue is disentangling religious concepts of marriage from the legal recognition of property-sharing/inheritance relationships. It should be simpler for people to have their directives regarding property/inheritance registered in a universally recognised way without regard to whether there is any sexual relationship at all, let alone any form of marriage.

  2. Even if Clay Greene wins his court case, he will never be able to get those three months back. I hope he does win and the law is changed so that this can’t happen to anyone else. Theft and destruction of your life is just appalling.

  3. Their wishes and legal directives should have been respected anyway.
    As someone at Pam’s House Blend pointed out, even without a marriage,* the representation of the two men as roommates was a legal misrepresentation. The county’s lawyers should be up before the bar. And the county should be facing criminal charges over the theft, as well as civil suit.
    * A tangent, but I disagree with making “marriage” the term for the religious ceremony – that’s a wedding, and that term is perfectly good – marriage is the being, not the becoming.

  4. we don’t know if Harold and Clay even wanted to be married.
    This is true, but I still think that marriage equality is pertinent here. I very much doubt that this would have happened to a de facto heterosexual couple — and a big part of the reason for that is because even the potential to get married gives het relationships a measure social and cultural validity that is currently denied to same-sex couples.
    As a heterosexual woman who has no desire to marry (and who agrees with Tigtog that some sort of civil registry is all we need in a legal sense), I know that I am still privileged simply by the fact that other people know that I am able to marry/other people are willing to assume that I am married/other people are willing to assume that my relationship is marriage-like even if I haven’t had the ceremony. All of this confers privilege — the sort of privilege that protects heterosexual couples from horror stories like the one above. I think that marriage equality is necessarily because it will help to redress those inequalities, even for same sex couple who chose not to wed.

  5. I think separating marriage and ‘domestic partnerships’ is a terrible idea. There is no ‘reverting’ marriage back to religion. Marriage only became a religious ceremony around the 14th century, before then it had little to do with religion at all. Furthermore, taking the word marriage away from the 60% of Australians who get married outside a church is just wrong.

  6. But Chris, there wouldn’t be any law that says that non-religous people can’t use the word marriage to describe their relationship. It just means that the word “marriage” wouldn’t have legal status — it’s the term “domestic partnership” that would have legal implications.
    I do, however, feel that it’s unrealistic to expect this sort of cultural shift to happen quickly, which is why I DO support marriage equality.

  7. If that’s the case then it would be the same as the status-quo except we’re calling it domestic partnerships instead of marriage. And that would only seem to change the current situation if it was really the word marriage that people objected to gays having when (in my opinion of course) it’s just legitimacy they don’t want them to have, no matter what that legitimacy is called.

    • I don’t think that this has to be an either/or matter – I’m looking at it as a both/and. In the short term we need to agitate for both marriage equality and better legal protections for other forms of domestic partnerships, and the more diverse type of couples there are who can legally marry then the less ignorance about such couples in other domestic partnerships will serve to bolster such horribly prejudiced proceedings as the separation and dispossession of Harold and Clay.
      In the long term, religious blessings should be entirely separated from state recognition of people’s partnerships. They can still occur and for people who care they can be the major focus of the wedding celebrations. But there shouldn’t be an automatic state recognition of a religious blessing.
      I think we’ll get what I propose in my first paragraph long before we’ll get what I propose in my second paragraph.

  8. Perhaps the ‘religious’ part of religious blessings should be entirely separated from state recognition of people’s partnerships is unnecessary: I take it what we’re envisaging is something like the current status of naming children? In Australia, you can baptise or dedicate or otherwise have a religious naming/introduction ceremony or you can have a secular one (there are even professionals who offer to, roughly, take the role a minister would in a Christian service) , but all of these are extra-legal; the legal process of naming a child is that of filling out a form for their birth certificate and establishing their name by usage and custom. There would be nothing preventing secular couples any more than religious ones from having a wedding ceremony and thinking of their relationship as a marriage, it’s just that in neither case would it be a legal status.
    Returning to the subject of the post I grieve for Clay Greene and Harold Scull for their loss of each other in the months before Scull died and the shameful and disgusting theft of their possessions. tigtog’s suggestion that marriage equality would increase recognition of same-sex partnerships both married and not seems right but one case of abuse more would be millions of abuses too many.

  9. In the long term, religious blessings should be entirely separated from state recognition of people’s partnerships.
    Yes. I just think the word “marriage” should apply to the second, not the first.
    I very much doubt that this would have happened to a de facto heterosexual couple — and a big part of the reason for that is because even the potential to get married gives het relationships a measure social and cultural validity that is currently denied to same-sex couples.
    Agreed, both the doubt and the reason for it.

  10. In this case, as in many others, I do not think that marriage equality would make a different. These people refused to respect a legal document – many legal documents, if I understand the case properly. Similar things have happened to spouses in same sex marriages in Canada, in terms of refusing to allow people to be at bedsides. (Again, the “roommate” idea was presented, even though there was an actual legally recognized marriage.)
    It’s a case where legal paperwork was not respected. It’s a case where a dying man was abused – and I think we all know that elder abuse is a huge problem, and this is just a small portion of that. I think this is definitely influenced by lack of marriage equality, but I don’t think the sort of people who would ignore legal paper work and abuse elderly disabled patients in this way would have respected a marriage certificate any more than similar cases here in Nova Scotia and across Canada have.
    And, frankly, even if Greene was Scull’s room mate and not his partner, they should have followed that directive. That’s the whole point of legal paperwork. And it was all ignored.

  11. “Marriage only became a religious ceremony around the 14th century”
    A nit-pick, if you’re talking about a Christian religious ceremony, it actually it wasn’t until the Council of Trent, mid-16th century, for Catholics and around the same time (tied up with the reformation) for Protestants.
    That said, this whole situation made me feel so appalled. Although they may not have wanted to get married, as others have said, even being able to reject marriage gives a relationship more status.

    • Of course, in some non-Christian cultures, marriage has been considered a religious ceremony since antiquity, while other cultures seem to have never viewed marriage as religious. The Roman Republic had two forms of religious marriage, and several forms of secular marriage. Divorce (for those married religiously) was also a religious ceremony in Rome.

  12. If only we could get past the idea that letting anyone marry as they wished would be the end of marriage (oh doom, oh the sky is falling). It doesn’t seem to have happened in European countries that allow gay marriage. No one has ever been able to tell me how my marriage would be affected by allowing gay marriage, or equal rights when it comes to property, children, superannuation etc.

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