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Homosexuals Seek Divorce-like Relief From Courts

June 1, 1996

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. (AP) _ For nearly 18 years, the couple lived, loved, invested and made their life together. But when love withered, Adria Golann sued for what she views as her fair share.

It would be a common, even trite tale, if her companion were not another woman. ``I really hope that the courts can see this the same as any legally married couple,″ Golann says.

While the nation engages in a protracted, polarized debate over legalizing gay and lesbian marriage, Golann’s lawsuit and others like it are challenging the legal system in a different way.

Should courts honor spoken vows or written contracts of everlasting support by such couples? Should courts order the equivalent of alimony? Should they grant child visitation rights?

With many judges uneasy about gay unions in the first place, homosexuals generally face difficult odds in such lawsuits, according to some lawyers who represent such clients. But with the increase in openly gay unions and a growing willingness to go public in lawsuits, a small number of judges are finding ways to grant at least some divorce-like relief in such cases.

``It’s hard to argue that divorce laws apply when there’s no marriage, so that leaves you having to come up with some pretty fancy footwork,″ said Mary Bonauto, a Boston lawyer with gay clients.

Similar legal questions have sprung from so-called same-sex palimony lawsuits against celebrities like tennis player Martina Navratilova or, earlier this year, pianist Van Cliburn. But they often settle out of public view.

Meanwhile, some ordinary people, in pressing forward, have nudged the legal terrain along, especially in the area of child visitation rights.

In November, the U.S. Supreme Court let a Wisconsin woman keep seeking permanent visitation rights if she can prove she once acted as a parent to the child of her former lesbian companion. Sandra Lynn Holtzman was granted temporary visitation in the meantime.

But even in this area, the court defeats are many. In Philadelphia, a woman identified in court papers only as J.A.L. is appealing a court ruling refusing her the right to seek visitation. She wants contact with the 4-year-old girl born by insemination to her former lesbian partner.

J.A.L.’s lawyer, Bernard D. Faigenbaum, says his client, by mutual agreement with her one-time partner, had acted as a parent to the child.

``If my client was a man who had a one-night stand ... and never saw that woman again ... he would have all the custody rights that any other parent would have,″ Faigenbaum said.

To avoid strife later, some gay couples have begun writing contracts to lay out the distribution of assets and other issues in the event of a breakup _ the equivalent of a prenuptial agreement. But even such calculated pacts aren’t necessarily honored by judges.

``Because they don’t think of us as building marriage-like relationships, they might interpret language like `I hereby commit to supporting you at all time in the future’ as a frivolous promise,″ said Beatrice Dohrn, a lawyer for the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, a New York-based gay rights group.

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