December 1, 2013

Mississippi won’t grant lesbians divorce

Gay-rights activists say that the issue is equally as important as the right of gays to marry legally.

The Associated Press

HERNANDO, Miss. — Lauren Beth Czekala-Chatham wants to force Mississippi, one of the America’s most conservative states, to recognize her same-sex marriage. She hopes to do so by getting a divorce.

click image to enlarge

Dawn Jefferies, right, speaks about the efforts Lauren Czekala-Chatham, left, has taken to get Mississippi to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in California, so she can now divorce the partner she lived with until 2010 in DeSoto County.

The Associated Press

She and Dana Ann Melancon traveled from Mississippi to San Francisco to get married in 2008. The wedding was all Czekala-Chatham hoped it would be, the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, dreams for a promising future. She wrote the vows herself.

The couple bought a house together in Walls, a town of about 1,100 in northern Mississippi’s DeSoto County in June 2009. But the marriage was tumultuous and, like so many others, it didn’t last.

Czekala-Chatham, a 51-year-old credit analyst and mother of two teenage sons from an earlier straight marriage, filed for divorce in chancery court in September. She wants to force Mississippi to recognize the same-sex marriage for the purpose of granting the divorce.

‘LIKE A SECOND-CLASS CITIZEN’

“It’s humiliating to know that you spend that money, that time to be in a committed relationship and for it to end. I mean, that hurts. But then to be in a state that doesn’t recognize you as a human being, or recognize you for who you are, for who you love, it’s hard,” Czekala-Chatham said during an interview at her current home in Hernando. “I’m not treated like the neighbors next door. I’m treated like a second-class citizen.”

She has plenty of company among gay and lesbian couples in other conservative states, although thus far only a few have pursued divorce cases in the courts.

Even as the number of states legalizing same-sex marriage will soon grow to 16, most states – like Mississippi – refuse to recognize such unions or to help dissolve them.

Gay couples who move to those states after marrying elsewhere face roadblocks if they wish to divorce, as do couples from those states who make a brief foray out-of-state to get married.

Often, such couples in non-recognition states would have to move back to the state where they were married and establish residency in order to get divorced – an option that can be unworkable in many cases.

“The idea you can’t go to your local courthouse and file for divorce is very disruptive,” said Peter Zupcofska, a Boston lawyer who has represented many gay and lesbian clients in marriage and divorce cases. “It’s an enormous waste of effort and time.”

The right to divorce isn’t as upbeat a topic as the right to marry, but gay-rights lawyers and activists say it’s equally important.

“The marriage system is a way we recognize and protect the commitments people make to their partner,” said James Esseks, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Part of that system is creating a predictable, regularized way of dealing with the reality that relationships sometimes end,” he said. “Those are the times people are the worst to each other, and that’s why we have divorce courts. There’s got to be an adult in the room.”

On a recent evening, in the one-story brick house she shares with her two children, a new girlfriend and several pets, Czekala-Chatham sat on the edge of a leather recliner, shaking her head.

“Why should I be treated differently, you know?” she said. “When the courthouse is a few blocks from here, I should be able to walk up there and get married. I should also be able to go up there and get divorced.”

She could get a divorce in California, but her lawyer argues that Mississippi wouldn’t recognize the divorce and their marital property would remain “in limbo.”

(Continued on page 2)

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