Senior Citizen Wins Equality for Lesbian and Gay Releationships

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Lambda praises ruling from Washington's high court extending fairness to all unmarried partners
November 1, 2001

(LOS ANGELES, Thursday, November 1, 2001) -- The Washington Supreme Court has ruled that a state doctrine, which has provided protection to unmarried heterosexual partners for years, also protects lesbian and gay families, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said Thursday.

Washington state's equitable doctrine protects those who have been in long-term, unmarried relationships should they separate, or if one partner dies. Lambda argued in two amicus briefs, filed on behalf of Frank Vasquez, that the law should apply equally to lesbians and gay men, so that when their relationships end they can use this rule to seek fair distribution of the couple's property in the same way heterosexuals can. The Supreme Court today agreed that this rule must apply equally, regardless of sexual orientation.

The Vasquez v. Hawthorne case went to the Supreme Court after an appellate court ruling stripped Frank Vasquez, a senior citizen, of his home and business following the death of Robert Schwerzler, Vasquez's partner of nearly 30 years. The case has been closely watched by women's rights and lesbian and gay civil rights organizations who assert that denying lesbian and gay couples access to equity, while they also do not have the freedom to marry, puts these families in a doubly unfair catch-22.

According to Lambda, today's ruling marks an historic step for lesbian and gay families in Washington, but Lambda expressed concern for Vasquez. The court sent his particular case back to the trial court to further examine the evidence of Vasquez's relationship with his life partner. He must now suffer the indignity of "proving" his relationship through a trial, while he still deeply grieves the loss of his partner.

Jennifer C. Pizer, senior staff attorney in Lambda's Western Regional Office, and author of Lambda's friend-of-the-court briefs, notes that tragedies like an unexpected death show why marriage is essential for lesbian and gay couples.

"This decision affirms that lesbians and gay men form committed, serious relationships with or without marriage, just like heterosexuals. It rightly judges all unmarried couples with the same standards," Pizer said. "However, Frank Vasquez would not be in the sad, painful position of having to prove the nearly 30 years of love and commitment he and his partner shared, if they could have married. We will continue to fight for that right."

Vasquez shared a home and business with Schwerzler, who died in 1995 without a will. In 1997, Schwerzler's relatives sued to take all the men's assets, including their home in Puyallup, Washington.

Applying a long-standing state equitable rule, a trial court upheld Vasquez's claim to the property, valued at approximately $230,000, that the two had acquired jointly during their relationship. An appellate court reversed that ruling.

Seattle attorney Suzanne Thomas, a co-author of Lambda's amicus briefs explained, "Many unmarried people, gay and straight alike, procrastinate about doing a will because none of us likes to think about death. It's a tremendous victory that Frank will have the chance to prove his case at trial, but it won't be pleasant. We all wish Bob had just gotten that will prepared."

No state in the United States offers same-sex couples the option of civil marriage, but in February legislators introduced a pair of bills that would bring civil unions to same-sex couples in Washington. A civil union bill also is pending in California. Civil unions, like those in Vermont, would greatly expand legal protections, rights, and responsibilities for lesbian and gay families.

Lambda is the oldest and largest legal organization dedicated to the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV and AIDS. Lambda has its headquarters in New York and regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta. Lambda will open an office in Dallas in 2002.

(Vasquez v. Hawthorne, No. 22616-2-II)

Jennifer C. Pizer 323-937-2728 x 223, 213-590-5903
Amanda Scioscia 212 809 8585x24; 888 987 1976



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