The rights and privileges of all committed couples should be the same.

Peter Lystad was a dedicated teacher for 40 years, many of them in the Auburn school system. Thousands of his former students around the world today share his wisdom and love of learning. Peter was also my life partner for 30 years. During the last two years of his life, he battled pancreatic cancer, asking to die at our home. I left my theater career to become his full-time caregiver and during his journey, it was, for both of us, a time of great richness about the meaning and mysteries of life.

On the day Peter died, the mortician came to take his body for cremation and asked, “Who will sign for the body?”

“I will,” I answered.

“What relation are you to the deceased?”

“I am Peter’s life partner.”

“I’m sorry, but that is not a legal relation,” he responded.

“Yes, but I have durable power of attorney,” I replied confidently. We had planned for this moment.

“I’m sorry, but durable power of attorney ends at death.”

Who knew? The lawyer who drew up the papers never told us. Peter’s only living relative, his 96-year-old mother, was in a nursing home in Minnesota. She had Alzheimer’s and did not know who she was.

So there I was with my life partner’s body in the bedroom, unable to do anything. It is illegal to bury a body on your property in Maine, and after nearly two years of constant care-giving, I was too exhausted to walk, much less dig a grave. Had I been Peter’s wife, the mortician would not have even asked for a marriage license before I signed for the body.

Today, my marriage to Jim Shaffer, which was legally licensed in Massachusetts and is recognized by our religion, is not recognized in Maine. Once again, we are in the position of dealing with inequities of law that treat our relationship differently from those of other citizens.

Ironically, Jim now is also battling cancer but, at least for now, 18 surgeries seem to have stemmed its progress. Whichever one of us dies first, we want what other committed couples have; no more, no less, not special, not different … just the same freedoms that are given to other Americans. In total, legally married couples enjoy over 1,100 rights and privileges that are denied us and other same-gender couples in Maine.

This country was founded with the venerable goal of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for each of its citizens. America’s journey toward this goal has required that we re-examine some of our most common traditions. In our history, we have realized many of our traditions have been unfair: slavery, child labor, the subservience and obedience of women, separation by gender, race, handicap or age.

As a democracy, we have learned that a separate institution for minorities is not democratic. States that are now mired in legal madness have learned that separate institutions of civil unions are not only unworkable, but also undemocratic and discriminatory.

Within living memory, it was neither traditional nor legal for black people to marry white people. Surely, marriage traditions have greatly changed many times, from the biblical era when a man could have many wives, to a time when a wife’s sole duty was to serve and obey her owner, her husband, to today, when our government issues marriage licenses, but only to some of its citizens. Religions have, and will always have, the freedom to sanctify whatever unions they choose.

Civil rights should never be subject to the whims of the popular vote. Let us remember that it was not popular vote that outlawed racial discrimination in America, but legislation and a civil war. In Massachusetts and Connecticut, marriage equality was dictated not by popular vote or legislation, but by judicial ruling. This legislative session, Maine, the “I lead” state, has an opportunity to truly “lead” these United States and become the first state to legislate marriage equality for all of its citizens.

My husband, Jim, and I want to be married in Maine. We believe the citizens of Maine pledge allegiance to a flag that stands for liberty and justice, not just for some, not just for most, but for liberty and justice for all.

Lew Alessio is a speaker with Maine SpeakOut and a program coordinator for a hospital network in Central Maine. He lives in Greene with his husband, Jim Shaffer.

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