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Wednesday, January 11,2012

No Hamlets here

A Lansing actor, his longtime partner and six others take arms against the Michigan law barring same-sex benefits

by Lawrence Cosentino

Sunday evening at 6, Gerardo Ascheri hustled a lingering piano student out of the living room of his Lansing home to answer a reporter’s knock at the front door. Ascheri’s partner of 18 years, Doak Bloss, threw some vegetables in a Ziploc bag and put dinner prep on hold.

Ascheri and Bloss lead full lives, and they’ve gotten busier since Friday, when they joined three other same-sex Michigan couples as plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Michigan against the state and Gov. Rick Snyder. 

The suit seeks to overturn a law signed by Snyder on Dec. 22 barring public employers from providing health insurance and other benefits to same-sex domestic partners. (Snyder says it doesn’t apply to state university employees and civil servants, but others disagree; the courts may have to resolve the dispute.)

Bloss, 57, who works for the Ingham County Health Department, estimates it will cost $8,000 to $10,000 to find an alternative health plan for Ascheri, a part-time piano instructor at MSU’s Community Music School and private piano tutor.

“During the whole Christmas holiday, we were down,” Bloss said. “We didn’t talk about it.” 

Bloss, a prolific actor and mainstay of the Lansing theater community, didn’t feel like fretting in the wings.

“Since we got involved in the lawsuit, I feel a lot better, because I’m actually doing something, not just sitting here waiting for it to happen,” he said.

They don’t know for certain when Ascheri’s coverage will lapse.  “County attorneys are looking into it,” Bloss said. 

Snyder and Michigan lawmakers insist the Public Employee Domestic Partner Benefit Restriction Act is meant to cut costs and enforce the “will of the people,” as House sponsor Dave Agema, R-Grandville, put it, referring to the approval of a constitutional amendment in 2004 that the courts say prohibits same-sex benefits for public employees.

The complaint in last week’s lawsuit zeroes in on the law’s curiously narrow calculus. Employers remain free to offer benefits to any other family members, the complaint points out, “including aunts, nieces, siblings, or cousins,” but bars them from offering the same benefits to committed same-sex couples who have shared their lives, households, financial resources and power of attorney for decades, and, in many cases, raised children together.

“To say that one group cannot have this benefit, even though their employer wants to provide it for them, is really extreme,” Bloss said.

The only conclusion to be drawn, alleges the complaint, is that the law is “the result … of discriminatory animus toward gay and lesbian individuals and families.”

Relying on this disparity, the suit alleges that the law denies same-sex partners equal protection of the laws provided under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“It’s very clear the legislature wanted to attack same-sex couples,” Jay Kaplan, LGBT staff attorney at the Michigan ACLU, said.  “Unlike heterosexual domestic partners, who have the option of getting married, same-sex partners can’t get married. There’s no way they can qualify for these benefits.”

Ascheri, 54, feels a touch of déjà vu these days. He grew up in the 1960s and early ‘70s under a series of repressive regimes in Argentina. 

“You couldn’t use the word ‘divorce,’” he said. “It was a very Catholic country. You had to be careful if you were gay.”

When he became a U.S. citizen in June 2010, he felt “safe for the first time in his life.”

“I can live with the person I love, my neighbors know about it, I’m OK,” he said. “My students and their parents know and they’re OK. And then something like this comes on and it’s disturbing. It’s like shaking the floor you stand on.”

Kaplan hopes a federal court will issue a preliminary injunction ordering the state to stop enforcing the law within two to six months, before the plaintiffs’ current labor contracts and benefits run out, and then declare the law unconstitutional.

The complaint also lays out the law’s potential consequences for all four Michigan couples named as plaintiffs.

Ascheri takes medicine for high blood pressure and cholesterol, but other plaintiffs are in more immediate trouble. JoLinda Jach of Kalamazoo works in the city’s food service division. Barbara Ramber, her partner of 17 years, was hit in the eye with a baseball last year and needs daily medicine for the resulting glaucoma. Ramber lost her health coverage on Jan. 1. Kaplan said Kalamazoo is reconsidering the withdrawal because Jach submitted an application for benefits for Ramber in November, before the law took effect.

The other two couples named as plaintiffs will keep their domestic partner benefits only until their contracts as Ann Arbor public school teachers run out, unless the new law is overturned. Theresa Bassett, a public school teacher in Ann Arbor, has been in a committed relationship with Carol Kennedy for 25 years. Kennedy, 50, is self-employed and has a family history of breast cancer. Peter Ways is also a teacher in Ann Arbor. His partner, Joe Breakey, is self-employed.

The Michigan law gave Bloss a free set of method acting lessons for his job as Ingham County’s health, equity and social justice coordinator. For six years, Bloss has worked to equalize health conditions in the community, which vary distressingly by race, gender and class. Now Bloss knows, first hand, what it’s like to be de-equalized. 

“I’m a white male,” he said with exaggerated air of entitlement. “I live in privilege all the time. I’m not accustomed to this.”

Since the lawsuit was filed, Ascheri has gotten dozens of supportive e-mails from parents of his piano students.

“Everyone I’ve talked to, gay or straight, is upset once they know about it,” he said.

Memories of a police-state childhood in Argentina make Ascheri wonder how far the right-wing anti-gay agenda will get in Michigan.

“Because of its brutal past, Argentina has become more tolerant and respectful of human rights,” Ascheri said. “How far do you need to go to learn something? How far down do you have to go toward intolerance to realize it’s not the right way to go?”

Ascheri and Bloss met in October 1993, during auditions for “Godspell” at Lansing Community College. Bloss was singing and Ascheri was the piano accompanist. “I knew pretty quickly this is the guy I wanted to be with for the rest of my life,” Bloss said.

Despite the recent wave of anti-gay measures in Michigan, crowned by the state’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, they hope to get married some day.

“We could get married in Argentina,” Ascheri suggested with a thin smile. In July 2010, Argentina became the first Latin American nation to authorize same-sex marriage.

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