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Virginia politicians face off over the legal rights of gay partners.

With This Ring

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When Randy Starnes met Darrell Fitzgerald in January 2001, he knew he had met the man he wanted to live with for the rest of his life. Fitzgerald felt the same way.

"Randy was the first man I could see as an old man sitting next to me on the porch in a rocking chair," Fitzgerald says.

"The fact that his faith is strong attracted me to him," says Starnes, who is an organist at Metropolitan Community Church of Richmond.

Six months later, they took the plunge. "One day I said, 'Will you marry me?'" Starnes says. "And he said yes."

So in a ceremony this June at the Metropolitan Community Church, Starnes and Fitzgerald, wearing gray suits, exchanged rings and vows of commitment in front of family and friends.

Starnes and Fitzgerald took part in a church service without the automatic legal bonds created by heterosexual marriages. Nonetheless, such ceremonies are increasingly popular. Since the Metropolitan Community Church opened its doors in 1968, its pastors have performed scores of holy union ceremonies.

Those ceremonies are part of a push for legally recognized unions between gay partners — so-called civil unions.

And in an election year, this most personal of subjects has been pulled into politics.

During the Democratic Party's June debate for lieutenant-governor candidates, Richmond Mayor Tim Kaine stated his support for "civil benefits" for gay couples, which would allow gay couples to file joint tax returns, receive insurance benefits and make financial decisions for each other — just like married couples.

That was widely viewed as support for gay legal unions. Kaine's running mate, Mark Warner, said he didn't agree with Kaine on the issue.

Lately, however, Kaine seems to have taken a different position.

"I think the institution of marriage is fine. I don't believe we need to create an alternative," Kaine tells Style. "Gays and lesbians should not be discriminated against in housing, or employment. When the question came up in the debate I said I support changing the state discrimination laws to [include gays]."

Larry Sabato, a political pundit at the University of Virginia, describes that as a politically motivated change. "He's realized it's an issue that sells in a liberal primary, but doesn't sell in a broad-based general election," Sabato says. "But whatever you say later, you're stuck with your first position. …

"There is not a mother lode of votes from people for gay unions," Sabato continues. And in changing his position, Kaine "might end up alienating both sides."

Should the issue even be in politics? Many gay couples believe it has to be. They argue that they don't receive the same benefits as married heterosexual couples. They point to issues such as insurance, handling the finances of an ill partner, and hospital visitation rights as evidence of inequality.

While gay civil unions are high on the radar for gay activists, they haven't gotten much traction politically. Last year, left-leaning California passed — with 61 percent of the vote — a ballot initiative blocking gay marriage. In 1996 Congress easily passed the Defense of Marriage Act, a law that allows states to not recognize gay marriages created in other states. The Virginia General Assembly passed its own bill blocking gay marriage in 1997.

Are legally recognized gay marriages likely to be coming to Virginia? Sabato doesn't think so — the state is too conservative, he says.

Republican lieutenant-governor candidate Jay Katzen agrees. "If California isn't ready for gay marriage," Katzen says, "then you know Virginia isn't."

And Katzen gleefully tackles Kaine on the issue. "I have met Virginian after Virginian who is disturbed by his [Kaine's] positions," Katzen says.

Katzen also opposes lifting the law prohibiting sodomy from the books because he believes that it serves as a deterrent to dangerous behavior. Virginia is one of 17 states that still have laws prohibiting sodomy. Arizona repealed its law this year.

"AIDS is the product, sadly, in most cases of a choice that people have made," Katzen says. "We recognize that homosexuality is a choice. It's a lifestyle with public-health consequences."

Katzen calls tearing up the sodomy law a step towards gay marriage. "It's an effort is to begin the process of laying the framework for gay marriage," Katzen says.

Kaine agrees the sodomy laws shouldn't be removed. But he says that's because they're irrelevant and unenforced in private situations.

"They're not a priority," Kaine says. "I don't know if they're being used."

Some say creating a legally recognized gay marriage is unnecessary. Gay couples "can sign power of attorney, designate wills and sign hospital visitation rights," says Bob Knight, a specialist on domestic law with the Concerned Women for America, a conservative Christian women's group. "We did a survey and couldn't find a single hospital that turned away a partner. A civil union is not needed for legal protection."

Perhaps. Nonetheless, many gays have made their way to Vermont to take part in civil unions. According to a report done by the Catholic University of America, 28 people have traveled to Vermont from Virginia to certify their unions.

Lisa Belongia, who in 1997 held a holy-union ceremony with her partner, Tina Webb, at Metropolitan Community Church, strongly argues that gays should be allowed to have legal marriages just like heterosexuals. She understands, she says, that her marriage ceremony had political implications: She has publicly declared her intention to live openly with a woman.

But Belongia says she won't be satisfied until the state recognizes her relationship: "Until we can do the same thing [marry], it won't be enough."

Until that happens, Randy Starnes and Darrell Fitzgerald are relying on legal documents that they have signed giving each other the same rights and privileges of married heterosexuals. They keep legal papers in their cars stating each other's right to make critical decisions for the other. But they say they are concerned that those agreements could be thwarted.

"I don't care what the government says," Starnes says. "I know that he and I are

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