SAN JOSE, Calif. – They’ve lasted considerably longer than the 55 hours pop diva Britney Spears managed to stay married, but a same-sex couple who tied the knot in San Francisco three months ago already is seeking to dissolve their union.

The couple’s breakup after more than 10 years together puts the spotlight for the first time on the flip side of same-sex marriage: divorce.

“I would love to think that gay people will do a better job with marriage than heterosexuals,” said Frederick Hertz, an Oakland, Calif.-based attorney and co-author of the “A Legal Guide for Gay and Lesbian Couples” who represents one member of the couple. “But chances are they’ll make as many mistakes as straight couples.”

Opponents of gay marriage last week seized on the breakup as a sign that same-sex marriage was doomed, while gay rights activists pointed out that about half of all heterosexual marriages also eventually fail. The breakup also highlights a tricky legal situation that all 3,955 same-sex couples who got married in San Francisco will face in the event they decide to sever ties or one person dies.

Hertz said the couple in question, whom he declined to identify for privacy reasons, own property together and aren’t sure how to divide their assets. For married couples, the law is clear. But the rules and guidelines are far more vague and complex for non-married partners.

Hertz said the couple will likely have to wait until the California Supreme Court decides the validity of the marriages, which may happen by the end of August.

The breakup also has political repercussions since it’s the first to surface since the gay rights movement took pains to celebrate the stability and social value of same-sex relationships during San Francisco’s 29-day marriage spree.

“It’s not surprising that these unnatural arrangements don’t last,” said Randy Thomasson, executive director of the Campaign for California Families, a statewide organization that has sued to stop gay marriage in California. “Despite popular belief, the real goal of homosexual relationships isn’t commitment, it’s self-gratification and sexual pleasure.”

But gay rights activists and marriage experts warned that conclusions should not be drawn from one case since thousands of other same-sex marriages performed in San Francisco remain intact. And in Massachusetts, no gay couples have filed for divorce since mid-May when the state became the first in the nation to legalize same-sex marriages.

In Vermont, the only state in the nation that allows same-sex civil unions, less than 1 percent (38 couples out of 6,945) have dissolved the bond in the past four years. However, many of the unions involve out-of-state couples who would have to move to the state for up to year in order to dissolve their unions.

Although the divorce rate among heterosexuals is high, only 1 percent take place in the first year, said Andrew Cherlin, a sociology professor who specializes in marriage at Johns Hopkins University. About half of couples split up in the 6th or 7th year, he said.

Another marriage expert said some same-sex couples in San Francisco may have been swept away by the euphoria of the moment. “It certainly isn’t surprising that some couples made a hasty decision or rushed to take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity without thinking this through,” said Stephanie Coontz, the national co-chair for the Council on Contemporary Families.

, a non-profit organization of family researchers, and a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

Hertz said some couples who hurried to get married in San Francisco are now seeking post-nuptial agreements to clarify issues such as the division of property and custody of children in the event the marriage fails or one of the partners dies. In January, a new state law for registered domestic partners will establish community property standards and dissolution rules similar to those available under marriage.

“Marriage is the one contract people not only don’t sign, but that they’re not even given a copy of,” aside from a simple certificate, Hertz quipped. “And in this case, until the legal issues are resolved, these couples will face enormous legal uncertainties.”



(c) 2004, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

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AP-NY-07-11-04 1742EDT



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