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Couple Has Everything But A Ring

Buoyed by hope, Kathy Barkley and Riki Blackwell, a married couple in every way but the one that legally counts, had planned a trip downstate this weekend. Then the weather out of Albany took a not-so-surprising turn. They had to call the whole thing off.

Riki turned 51 on Saturday. For her birthday, she and Kathy, who is 47, planned to spend a long weekend in New Paltz, the state-college town west of the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie. Like false spring in early March, New Paltz suddenly had become a mecca of long-awaited opportunity for loving couples such as these working-class women from Jefferson County.

Wife and wife - so Ms. Blackwell and Ms. Barkley are to each other, although they'll refer to one another as "significant other" or "life partner" in uneasy society - planned to take off work on Monday. They planned to stop that day at the municipal clerk's office in New Paltz to see about getting a marriage license or getting on a waiting list.

They weren't sure just how it would unfold, but they might even be able to exchange vows in a civil ceremony performed by that village's headline-making, same-sex-couples-uniting mayor in the same birthday trip.

For these women, it would not be spur-of-the-moment, an impulsive leap onto the gay and lesbian bandwagon that, through late February and early March, was wedded to a phalanx of television cameras from San Francisco to New Paltz. Riki Blackwell and Kathy Barkley had longed for this moment for 26 years.

They had grown up on the same street in Carthage, but finally met at work in Watertown when both were in their 20s. Kathy had a car accident in the parking lot at the Northland Electric Motors plant, where both she and Riki have been laborers for more than 30 years. Riki walked outside to check out the scene. "We just became friends and started seeing each other," Kathy said.

At the Bradley Street plant, Kathy Barkley, a Teamster's daughter, is the longtime chairperson of Local 910 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Riki Blackwell is vice-chairperson of the union local, which has dwindled from 600 members in the late '80s to 13 today as Northland's parent company has moved its assembly-line operations to Mexico, where the climate for cheap labor warms many a corporate profiteer chanting the global-market mantra.

Loyal and dedicated to their labor union, Ms. Blackwell and Ms. Barkley bring the same traits to their domestic union. Yet they've long been denied the ultimate sanction they seek for a shared living arrangement that seems a lot like a good and durable marriage.

"Marriage means a lot to both of us," Riki Blackwell said at the kitchen table of the cozily well-kept blue trailer that has been their home in Rutland Center for 15 years. "We've been in a completely monogamous relationship. Both of us would like to be married."

In lieu of that, the couple at the start of their domestic union did as gay and lesbian partners commonly have done and held a commitment service. Theirs was a very private affair in their Carthage apartment.

"My brother came and my sister-in-law," said Kathy Barkley, "and we had a little cake and some champagne. Riki wrote the vows and I had it put on a wooden plaque." The plaque now hangs in their bedroom.

Then the young newlycommits drove down to Syracuse to celebrate at a gay bar. "You could do just what everybody else does" and together dance the night away, Kathy said.

As lesbians, Riki Blackwell and Kathy Barkley had long been made to feel not just like everyone else. They'd been taught by society's righteous that such love as theirs was an "abomination." A Mennonite counselor once warned Riki, she now angrily recalls, that "Fornicators, adulterers and homosexuals go right to hell."

When Riki told her mother she was gay, "My mother said, "Do you think that you need to see a psychiatrist?"' Hers was a poor family, Riki said, and psychiatric treatment would have been extraordinary recourse for only the most grave condition.

With her mother, "It makes for a very strained relationship, because you can't be yourself," she said.

"It's like your family can accept it, but "we don't want to let the dirty little secret out.' That's just what it feels like, a dirty little secret."

"I guess I faced it a couple times where I thought being dead was probably better than being gay," Riki Blackwell said.

"It's a struggle to come out," said Kathy Barkley, "because you know it's not going to be an easy lifestyle."

The absence of clergy at their early commitment service was telling too. Both Riki Blackwell and Kathy Barkley believed that the houses of God had no room for lesbians.

Riki was raised as a Roman Catholic. "We weren't welcome in our church, and I stopped receiving Communion once I realized I was gay," she said.

Raised in a family without a church affiliation, Kathy Barkley as an adult had become a Christian seeker. But as a lesbian with a partner, "I knew I never could be baptized, which always bothered me," she said.

A Methodist minister, she recalled, "told me basically I was going to hell unless I changed. I gave up on that and started doing the TV evangelism." They showed up in their living room, yet those evangelists didn't ask probing questions about the couple's lifestyle.

Then the discreetly united women heard about Emmanuel Congregational Church in Watertown. "We're very welcomed, we're very loved there," Riki Blackwell said. Their lesbianism "doesn't really matter there."

"We've been out to people at work, but never really in public," Riki said. "I think our outing was there" at the church on South Hamilton Street.

Kathy Barkley was baptized a Christian at Emmanuel Congregational. She has served as deacon there. Both partners are active in the church's diversity group for gay, lesbian and transgendered persons.

"I think the church has filled both of our hearts with such love," Riki Blackwell said.

For their 25th anniversary last year, they considered having a religious commitment service performed by their co-pastors, the husband-and-wife pair of reverends, Ronald and Patricia Farr. It would have to be held outside the church, Kathy Barkley said, as the United Church of Christ congregation at Emmanuel has not voted to make theirs an "open and affirming church" where those services for same-sex couples are allowed.

In the end, the partners decided another commitment service was not enough.

"It's a commitment between two people and that's not to be taken lightly," said Kathy Barkley, "but we would like all the legal ramifications with it" that come from marriage alone. "We're at the point where it's so close, I guess I want it all or nothing.'

"And we would like to celebrate it with our family - that would be the best part," Kathy said.

"Because people really don't take you serious unless you are married," Riki Blackwell said. "I want to be like I'm really married, rather than a fictitious thing."

Despite their enduring wifely union, the couple pays a host of penalties for living outside the protective civil embrace of marriage.

At work, they must carry separate health insurance plans. With their homeowner's disability insurance, they lack the financial protection granted the spouse of an injured or disabled party. Should one be hospitalized, the other could be denied the visitation rights allowed to family members. Should one die, the other is not eligible to receive Social Security survivor benefits. At the subsidized senior citizen housing complex they've looked into, they could not share an apartment as an unmarried couple.

They are each other's health care proxies. They have made out wills that name each other as beneficiaries, although, unlike married spouses, the surviving partner in their union would have to pay estate taxes on inherited property. Even those legal arrangements, they've been warned by a lawyer, might lack the same binding force and security as with married couples.

As a sop to gay and lesbian couples, some state and federal politicians have come out in favor of licensed civil unions such as Vermont has adopted. Marriage would be kept a separate legal right reserved for opposite-sex couples. Yet couples such as these north country women won't accept the second-class citizenship conferred by that political largesse.

"I'm an American citizen," Kathy Barkley said. "I should have the exact same rights as anyone else. If it ever gets to the point where I can only have a civil union, then rip all those marriage licenses up for heterosexuals and let them have civil unions too."

When the Green Party mayor of New Paltz, Jason West, in late February performed marriage ceremonies for some 25 gay and lesbian couples, Kathy Barkley felt a surge of hope. She and Riki began to make their travel plans for this weekend.

"We just thought finally, finally we're going to be able to do this," Riki Blackwell said. "It reminds me of being a prisoner and all of a sudden you have a taste of freedom."

Like false spring, that freedom was fleeting. In the first week of March, state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer opined that the state's domestic relations law prohibits same-sex marriages in New York, yet "raises important constitutional questions involving the equal protection of the laws" that must be decided by the courts. Two days later, a state judge effectively put a halt to the New Paltz mayor's practice of marrying couples lacking marriage licenses. The mayor faces charges on 19 misdemeanor counts.

But a force for change had been unleashed. The American Civil Liberties Union this month filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court against the state Health Department on behalf of 13 gay and lesbian couples. They seek to have the domestic relations law that prohibits same-sex marriages declared constitutionally invalid.

In Rutland Center, the long-united couple hope the day will come when they can be married in a church ceremony. In the meantime, Riki Blackwell has joined the political lobbying fight waged by the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian rights, to legalize same-sex marriages and defeat the proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would exclusively define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

"They're going to change the Constitution because of us?" Riki Blackwell said. It strikes her as extreme.

"It almost feels like our country has turned against us, with President Bush's stand" in support of that constitutional amendment, Kathy Barkley said.

"I think it's shameful," she said. The shame is not hers.

by John Golden, Watertown Times Staff Writer
First published: Sunday, April 18, 2004