Posted: May 12, 2011
STATE OF THE (CIVIL) UNION
By Celia Cohen
Any resemblance to a wedding reception was purely coincidental for the ceremonial signing of the civil union bill into law.
So insisted Lisa Goodman, the lawyer who helped to forge this milestone as the president for all of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their friends at Equality Delaware.
But really. There was a champagne toast and dessert tables with those festive chocolate-dipped strawberries and plenty of clergy roaming around to get couples in the mood and the Rainbow Chorale of Delaware singing in formal attire and pictures being taken and so much happiness.
Goodman herself could not resist calling the ceremony a "joyous occasion." About the only other words she could have used to be more evocative of a wedding would be "dearly beloved."
And whose whimsical sense of humor decided that a bill signing for gay people should be at a place called The Queen?
It happened Wednesday evening in Wilmington at the World Cafe Live at The Queen, the once-discarded Market Street theatre given new life, just like a lot of the crowd that came out to watch.
Something like 600 people thronged inside, somehow lending intimacy to a space as cavernous as a cathedral. They were so excited.
They cheered everything! They cheered when Goodman said they were going to get started! They cheered when she introduced Jack Markell, the Democratic governor who was going to sign the bill! They cheered Matt Denn, the Democratic lieutenant governor! They even cheered legislators!
Has there ever been a bill signing ceremony like this one?
"There never has," said Bob Gilligan, the Democratic speaker who is the longest-serving legislator in state history. He is at 39 years and counting.
Not that this new law solves everything. The safe haven it offers does not extend beyond the boundaries of Delaware.
There are roughly 1,100 federal benefits denied to partners in civil unions by the count of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy group based in Washington. A lot of the benefits have to do with taxes, like no joint filing, and partners do not have access to the other's Social Security benefits.
This was not a day for worrying about that, however. This was a day for marveling that in Legislative Hall in Dover -- that palace of vanity and voracity where the unofficial slogan is "where's mine?" -- 13 out of 21 state senators and 26 out of 41 state representatives found their inner white knight and voted for civil unions.
"This is like the best bill I ever voted for. Because it was something that was long overdue, and with the people in the building -- the emotions -- it was a proud moment," said Valerie Longhurst, the Democratic majority whip in the House of Representatives.
"It was the only time I ever cried on the House floor."
So this is the way history is made. Markell sensed it as he signed his way into it.
"Your family is now equal under the law," he said.
Markell had backed gay rights when he ran for treasurer in 1998 and committed to a civil union bill when he ran for governor in 2008. He hugged his wife Carla. He held up the new law to jubilant cheers, then thrust it as high as he could, a declaration of equality in the course of human events.
It brought on the champagne toast, not to mention an ironic thought about that old wedding day wisecrack, "Just legal."
There are plenty of indications that civil unions are easily going mainstream. For example, there was a mischievous verse or two about them Saturday at the First State Gridiron Dinner & Show, a showpiece political roast attended by Delaware's uppermost political, legal and corporate circles.
The Gridiron Players sang to the tune of "Do You Hear the People Sing" from "Les Miserables":
You have heard the partners call
Asking for equal rights to start
It is a union of two people
With the joining of the heart
We assure all married folks
We know what you are going through
We want to be as equally miserable as you
How about it. Once civil unions were outlawed. Now they have in-laws.