On March 1, 2007, Edwadene Ripperdan stood before a Mays Landing clerk to exchange vows with her long-time spouse Florence Lohbrandt.
Lohbrandt’s hair had started to return in patchy stubble following chemotherapy for a malignant brain tumor that would take her life a year later. She smiled broadly in her crisp, black pantsuit, surrounded by close friends and the woman she loved.
“She was feeling light and happy,” Ripperdan described her partner, a high school friend she reconnected with in 2002. “She could be who she was.”
They were one of 91 Atlantic County couples to take advantage of the state’s legalization of civil unions that year. Though Lohbrandt and Ripperdan always thought of themselves as married — even before the civil union — they did not enjoy the same benefits other married couples do.
While Ripperdan’s marriage never received full legal recognition, that could soon change for other same-sex couples.
The issue is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, which will determine if California voters were entitled to approve Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that defined marriage as only valid between a man and a woman. The justices’ decision could determine whether gay and lesbian couples have the right to marry and, in turn, the various financial and legal benefits granted to married couples.
Last year, Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage in New Jersey. It’s proven a divisive issue locally and nationwide due to its economic, political and religious implications.
“There’s always going to be hate mongers out there, but I think the pendulum is going to shift as more young people have a voice to be heard — it has to change,” said Richard Helfant, who helped found the Greater Atlantic City GLBT Alliance in 2009.
Helfant, who considers himself a Republican, said he’s had to weigh conflicting priorities because of his political affiliation. But he’s heartened by a perceptible shift in the national rhetoric. In recent months, a number of politicians — including Republican Senator Rob Portman, of Ohio — have come out in favor of extending marriage rights.
“I’m hopeful our governor will have a change of heart on this issue and see it differently,” he said.
Jake Glassey, who served as Egg Harbor Township’s mayor in 1983 and later as deputy mayor for about a decade before stepping down in 2010, developed a reputation as one of the few local officials willing to officiate same-sex civil unions.
“Several of the local mayors I knew who did weddings were pretty strict Catholics and most strict Catholics are not for gay marriages or civil unions,” he said. “I don’t get involved in all that jazz.”
Having officiated more than 100 ceremonies, Glassey said same-sex couples presented far fewer complications than heterosexual ones.
“I never had a problem with officiating civil unions because they were all looking forward to it, wanted to do it and it was a happy event for them,” he said.
Straight couples were another story.
“Usually the girl is pregnant by some young fella and the parents are trying to get them married,” he said. “Sometimes when the families get there, they’re not in the greatest mood.”
For his part, Glassey said he supports civil unions but questions the use of the word “marriage” to describe such partnerships. He also worries about the costs of extending death, health and other benefits to gay couples.
Not all local officials are so pragmatic. Vineland, for instance, passed a resolution in 2009 defining marriage as between one man and one woman. The same year, a former Millville police officer settled a harassment lawsuit — in which he claimed he faced ridicule because of his sexual orientation — for $415,000. Last year, Vineland schools were forced to remove a filter that blocked gay and lesbian websites following a lawsuit filed by two Vineland High School students.
While marriage equality could result in more surviving spouses receiving death and other benefits, it would also increase what some gay couples would pay in income and estate taxes.
A 2004 study by the Congressional Budget Office found that recognizing same-sex marriages would bring in about $1 billion of new revenue over the course of 10 years. Because SSI and Medicaid both link eligibility to income, the study concluded that gay marriage may actually decrease federal spending.
A research study published in the National Tax Journal in December came to a similar conclusion. It found that legalization of same-sex marriage could increase federal income tax revenues by about $34 million per year.
Filomena Boccella and Kristen Distler, a couple of more than 10 years who run Club In or Out in Hammonton, live as a married couple even if they don’t access to a marriage license.
Like many married couples, they recently undertook the big step of building a new home, but their legal status did come with barriers.
“There’s always the explaining to do,” Boccella said. “You don’t want to be discriminated against, so you keep your private life private just so they don’t, and you never know when they will.”
The prospect of finally having their union officially recognized — “it’s as if we’ve been married from the very beginning,” she said — is exciting.
“It would be a wonderful thing to be accepted in our generation, like everyone else,” she said. “I’m sad to say we’re the last ones to get equal rights.”
Helfant said the local gay community hasn’t been particularly vocal about equal rights. While Atlantic City casinos offer gay-themed nights and one, Resorts Casino Hotel, has a club. The Alliance sponsors events, but those are often social occasions and such events are scarce outside of major cities.
“We don’t really have a strong gay nucleus in the community, so I don’t think you see that movement as strong as you would in, say, Philadelphia,” he said.
Putting a figure on the size of the region’s gay community is difficult. The Kinsey Reports of the 1940s and ’50s estimated about 10 percent of the U.S. population was homosexual. Because the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t ask about sexual orientation or gender identity, it’s impossible to accurately estimate the number of people who self-identify as GLBT.
An analysis of 2010 Census statistics by The Williams Institute at the University of California School of Law found New Jersey has about 5.2 same-sex couples per 1,000 households, but that figure doesn’t include singles. In The Press of Atlantic City’s coverage area, Atlantic County has the highest rate of same-sex couples, with 5.7 per 1,000 households; followed by Cumberland County with 4.9, Cape May County with 4.4 and Ocean County with 4.2.
Ripperdan said being in what the state called a “civil union” brought Lohbrandt much happiness and they would have returned to the county seat for a marriage certificate if they could.
“I feel it’s unfair,” she said, “but I’ve lived so long in this life, that I take what comes. We’re in a day and age where it’s about to change and I’m very happy for all of those who will benefit from that.”
Like Ripperdan, Helfant also lost a long-time partner and said he probably would have married if the opportunity was there.
“I want to share my life, my happiness and my sorrow with someone for the rest of my life,” he said.
Helfant, who’s currently single, continued with a joke: “You could put a blank application at the bottom of the story.”
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