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A Chained Man

Thanks to the patchwork of laws about same-sex marriage, I got trapped in legal limbo when I wanted a divorce

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(Illustration Tablet Magazine; original images Shutterstock and Wikimedia Commons)
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Last week, the Supreme Court heard testimony in two cases that may decide the future of same-sex marriage in the United States. But personally, I’ve been more concerned lately with same-sex divorce.

I got divorced in February. Or, since I was never technically married as far as the federal government is concerned, maybe I should say I got a dissolution. Or a disunion. Whatever you call it, a relationship that began with lively gaiety under the chuppah but had long since become a moribund afterthought reached its legal end, releasing me definitively and finally from any remaining force of my vows.

Divorce isn’t unusual in itself. But in my case, because we were a same-sex couple, it had taken nearly 11 years from the time we ended the relationship until we could make it official. For more than a decade, I had been not-quite-married and not-quite-divorced, chained to a man I could not free myself from.


Just after I came out as gay to myself, my family, and my friends at the start of 2000, I met a nice Jewish boy at synagogue, of all places. He and I were in our late 20s and had grown up in the Philadelphia suburbs not far from each other. Our relationship was “mixed” insofar as he was from a Reform background and I was Conservative, but Judaism and Jewish community were important to both of us. Given this background and where we found each other, it was no surprise that our religious and cultural values and traditions played a significant part in how our time together unfolded.

About a year and a half after we started dating, the two of us entered into a civil union—also known derisively as marriage lite. Although our home state of Pennsylvania denied us all matrimonial rights, as it continues to do for all same-sex couples today, Vermont had no residency requirements for civil unions—which, at that point, were the closest thing to marriage available to gay couples in any state. Making effective use of a long weekend, we drove up one fall Friday, got our license that afternoon, stood under the chuppah before a rabbi on Sunday evening, and returned to Philadelphia on Monday.

Our honeymoon period was short, though, and before long, our relationship fell apart, for many of the same reasons that heterosexuals’ so-called “starter marriages” fail. But exiting it was much trickier for us. As easy as Vermont made getting kind-of-hitched for out-of-staters, decoupling was another story: The state’s statutes required six months’ residency before courts were permitted even to entertain a request to break up a civil union. The progressive folks in Montpelier who had helped us say “I do” gave us little assistance in saying “I don’t anymore.”

Opposite-sex couples have an easy solution when they can’t terminate their marriage where they were joined: They divorce where they live. Had we been straight, we could have filed in Pennsylvania, just like 38,479 heterosexual couples did that year, regardless of where they had gotten married. But Pennsylvania couldn’t help us dissolve a union it never recognized in the first place.

The United States is a patchwork of different jurisdictions with divergent juridical stances on dissolving same-sex relationships, even today. In Massachusetts, for example, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2004, either partner can seek a divorce, just as their straight counterparts can; some other states, including a smattering without marriage equality, lay out a dissolution route through a petition or action-based mechanism. Elsewhere, gay and lesbian spouses garner no state-sanctioned recognition, and no governmental organ can put the two asunder because, as far as local law is concerned, there’s nothing to undo. Meanwhile, the Defense of Marriage Act, enacted by Congress in 1996, currently precludes the federal government from acknowledging same-sex marriages or providing any of the benefits that flow from them, even if such marriages are recognized by the state in which the couple resides.

For these reasons, when I queried lawyers familiar with this area of law, they urged caution in entering the legal arena: Outcomes in cases like ours depend in significant part on what kind of affiliation the couple entered into, where they reside, and the interpretations of the judge they stand before. If Oregon recognizes civil unions but constitutionally bans same-sex marriage, how does it treat two men married halfway across the country in Iowa? What do Iowa magistrates do with Oregon civil unions, which have never been a part of Iowa law? How do Nevada’s “domestic partnerships” fit into this mix? And just as significantly, how many people in any one of these positions, already enduring the “ordinary” trauma of splitting up, want to be a test case if their state’s stance is unclear?

As cardboard boxes swallowed our ketubah, our photographs, and other flotsam and jetsam from better days, nothing inspired me to strike out as a queer pioneer-missionary, conquering new territories for civil rights and converting a hetero-normative judiciary into educated rainbow-flag-waving allies; all I wanted was to get this voyage over with as definitely, as safely, and as speedily as possible. But moving to Vermont wasn’t a realistic option, and we couldn’t resolve anything in Pennsylvania, so we simply and anticlimactically walked away, somewhat locked into something like wedlock.

Even though a rabbi had performed our ceremony, seeking a religious release from our bonds presented obstacles. In recent years, several Jewish movements and institutions have attempted to keep pace with the growing number of same-sex religious unions, including the ones that fail to survive, regardless of what a given legal system permits or denies. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association provides divorce rituals for two women, for two men, and for just one of the partners. Similarly, Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, a professor at North America’s flagship Reform seminary, has publicly shared her own experiences with same-sex separation and her own document for a same-sex ritual of spiritual and religious release. But as helpful as these rituals are from a spiritual perspective, they are of little assistance in persuading secular legal authorities in inhospitable jurisdictions, and 10 years ago, they were, at best, limited in their availability. The upshot was that both legally and religiously, we were stuck in our civil union.

We didn’t see or speak to each other for about a decade, but a definitive conclusion was elusive. Although this lingering connection didn’t loom large in my day-to-day life, I remained cognizant of its unresolvedness. Whether on opinion surveys, in dating questionnaires, or through casual queries, “What’s your marital status?” or some variation is supposed to be answerable through a series of familiar checkboxes (“Single/Married/Separated/Divorced/Widowed”). My indeterminate circumstances turned these mutually exclusive options into an essay. If I don’t expect to have further contact with my significant other, is “separated” fitting or misleading? Is “divorced” a better approximation? Because we had a “civil union,” not a “marriage,” could I be either? Was I “single”? Why not cross everything out and write “none of the above”? Without convincing and comfortable responses, I found myself with a standing both unfamiliar and unnameable, even to me.

I found the most analogous situation toward the more observant end of Judaism. Under traditional Jewish law, a husband, and only a husband, can grant a religious divorce or get; his wife must consent to the marriage’s termination but is legally incapable of initiating a repudiation of their bond. While a religious court can employ certain prodding measures, if the husband chooses not to issue a get, is unavailable, or cannot be located, his wife is bound to him, unable to remarry in a Jewish ceremony. These women, called agunot or “chained ones,” are sufficiently numerous and oppressed that organizations in Israel and throughout the Jewish world have sprouted to sustain them. Each agunah has her unique plight, but all share a common inability to religiously divorce the men they have married and to whom they are anchored.

My predicament was in no way as extreme as an agunah’s, and my travails were trivial compared to what agunot endure for months, years, or decades. I butted up against no adverse consequences in my communities, and I lacked no means of economic or other support. I was not extorted, intimidated, shamed, or shunned as a prelude to divorce; I was simply unable to get one.

And yet, even with the experiential gaps that stood between agunot and me, we lived in a shared limbo, chained indefinitely to a partner we no longer shared our lives with in practical terms, but unable to move forward.


Years passed. I dated off and on, but struggled with how to share my complicated background. My general practice was to avoid conversations about this part of my past as best as possible, lest I feel compelled to provide long stretches of explanatory context (or to at least try). For better or for worse, at no point did a relationship develop to the degree where I was comfortable doing so or where it seemed necessary.

Meanwhile, the rest of my life continued. I left Philadelphia, went from practicing law to matriculating at rabbinical school, studied in Israel, lived in New York City, and finally returned to Pennsylvania. But as far as I went, as far as the chain stretched, I stayed tethered to a part of my past and to someone whose whereabouts and circumstances were unknown to me.

This past July, my ex and I were in contact for the first time in nine years. He had moved to California, he said, and wanted to take advantage of laws there to officially end what remained of our relationship. I agreed, and we moved along amicably. Our court docket reflected my own labeling ambivalence, referring to our cause of action as a “Petition for Dissolution – Domestic Partnership” that concluded with a “Judgment for Dissolution of Marriage.” This lexical equivocation aside, any lingering legal linkage between us lapsed this year on Feb. 2, the date when the court order decreed our “marital status ends”; indifferent to Punxsutawney Phil’s prognostication, I left Groundhog Day 2013 with this particular shadow slightly shorter.

I’ve spent the past several months meandering from anxiety to sadness to relief to gratitude, revisiting stray memories and walking toward closure. I can’t say exactly what, at this late point, we’ve wrapped up, and I’m not sure if I’m divorced, single, “civilly disunited,” or something else. But among my certainties is this: I look forward to a day when religious and secular shackles are broken, freeing agunim and agunot of all kinds to move on with their lives.


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Levi Muncel says:

Marriage isn’t a Federal right, so any marriage isn’t Federally recognized.

    whoffman says:

    Actually, the federal government recognizes all marriages that individual states recognize, *except* for same-sex marriages–meaning that, thanks to DOMA, even if your state recognizes your same-sex marriage, the federal government does not. Federal recognition comes with more than 1,100 rights afforded by the federal government to all couples that individual states considered married — except for same-sex couples. Everything from immigration to taxation, Social Security to veterans benefits. Here’s a list:

Lawyers know- any type of marriage can lead to divorce -to them, money is money-equal opportunity?

oaklandj says:

Wow, what a story. I was thinking of the parallel to agunot myself when I read the headline.
Marriage equality will eventually come, after several fits and starts (to placate evangelicals and other social conservatives). In the meantime, this sort of mess is exactly why “separate but equal” is never that.

Perhaps you should have thought of all this before entering into a homosexual marriage.

I had always thought Lawyers were supposed to be smart. Well, another fallacy shot down.

    I don’t know if you’re married, but if you are, did you think beforehand “is it going to be possible or easy or quick to divorce this person in the future” and let that influence your decision?

Karma’s a bitch. Especially when a lawyer forgets the golder rule: caveat emptor.

MonseyJew says:

I find the analogy at best inaccurate. As I am sure any
reflective, informed caring person would. I was agunah for many years. No one
dates you, no one “sets you up” you are alone, period–you get some sympathetic
nods around town and that’s about it. And we are not “sustained.” Most women (and yes it is a women only kind of thing like pregnancy) who wind up agunah do not have what you call “starter marriages.” The women who the status affects are almost exclusively Orthodox women. And as you may know women get pregnant in marriages so agunah wind up single mothers. And as you may have heard, they had access to information) in leafy Vermont, and wherever, single mothers do not bring in the big bucks that the white male makes. The rumor is true, there is real oppression in the world.

So no sir, hardly, not even a cute and certainly not a clever conceit: you were not an agunah. So you will forgive me if I don’t cry you a river. You know you are an agunah, day in and day out. Your analogy trivializes women, and is ultimately misogynist and narcissistic. Surprise. How rare is that? A man trivializing women never happens, unheard of. You had inconvenient paper work please do not be so callous and self absorbed as to ever imagine it was anything like being an agunah. Maybe you want to feel like an African American next—I mean go for it. Or better yet, as they say, check your privilege

    oaklandj says:

    He said that the closest analogy was to agunot, not that he knew what it was like to be an agunah (or that he was one). Furthermore, an Orthodox woman can leave her community and have her divorce decree respected; the author’s marriage could not be nullified until recent changes in law made that possible.
    Any analogy is going to be imperfect. But maybe your intention was not to learn from his experience and sympathize. There are lots of conservative African-Americans who also believe that they “own” civil rights and are disgusted by gay activists who are fighting their own civil rights battle.

      MonseyJew says:

      Oh now I see, the author was trying to educate me? I am humbled, dumb ole little religious me—please forgive me—mea culpa. Of course an Orthodox women “need” to be “educated” how kind. “Leave the
      community?” “Have their divorce decree respected in another place.” For your edification, the decree is a “Get” and agunas do not have a “Get”. And that is exactly why they are agunas.

      But forgive me sir, I certainly did not mean to point out that you do not know what you are talking about—and yet forge ahead with advice. Please do not think it is your ignorance that I point out. I am only a woman and certainly not up to the task. Keep blathering, ignorance and bigotry.

      Thanks for the suggestion and solution—move, leave Orthodoxy. That is really respectful. Your ragging bias is showing like carpenter’s
      crack. Pull up your pants. Seriously, how smug to suggest we just abandon our way of life. Think of the end result of that– if we did that than people like
      the author could not use us for faulty analogies. If you can forgive us we
      intended to remain Orthodox. Even if you can’t comprehend or garner any respect for that—I know the author is fighting a tirelessly civil rights battle—paper work is oppressive, and so much more important than feeding kids as a single mother.

      “Furthermore,” to borrow your language, next time you get that white man urge to put a woman in her place don’t make a fool of yourself doing it. Seriously, I should sympathize because a man has paperwork problems— heart wrenching. Bottom line, the author is misogynistic and trivializes women. As you do. He is ignorant of the laws of aguna, (as are you)
      and to him it is merely a rhetorical device to compare the pain oppression and misery of the aguna’s existence to the inconvenience of his “paper work problems.” If that works for some
      readers fine. I for one am not impressed by the author’s comparison or by your ignorance—“can leave the community and have the divorce decree respected. “

      What can I say? Leave it to a white man to be ignorant with authority. You did give me a good laugh—thanks. Education
      should be fun.

        oaklandj says:

        I was saying you have options. In the Orthodox world, you don’t (but in the secular world, you certainly do). In the secular world, the author of this article doesn’t.
        But what is clear is that you have a staggeringly large chip on your shoulder. If I had something that heavy there, I’d also find it difficult to move forward. Good luck to you.

          MonseyJew says:

          You mistake me calling you and the writer out as a bigoted misogynists as a chip–why do read a woman’s honesty like that–somebody needs to do some privilege checking. Agunas do not often live in the secular world—remember diversity? It means there are all different kinds of people. Pretty predictable, I point out your very male ignorance and you are unable to recognize that and feel some need to dismiss it as my “chip” a fault, or failing on my part—no no, not male arrogance and ignorance—never that. Again misogynistic and you are trivializing women. How exactly did your ignorance become my character flaw? Simple by way of your arrogance or your bigotry, no doubt. I wasn’t nicey nice. Get over yourself. As for the author six kinds of silly—but he wants sympathy, right? Okay, paper work is very important and very painful. Injustice, oppression at ever turn, state by state get the camera, white man has paperwork problems—just like an aguna, mirror image—the exact same. And I have nothing to wear to the new civil rights movement—oh heavens.

So go right ahead and do what is wrong, again and life will bite you in the butt again…

I’m sorry but you did not have a problem with divorce. You were never married. A marriage is between a man and a woman. Just like you can’t marry someone under-aged, you can’t marry an animal, you can’t marry yourself, you can’t marry your child or your mother, YOU CAN’T MARRY A MAN, AND CALL IT A MARRIAGE. Sorry but that is what Judaism believes, as does most of the world’s civilizations and religions. You were nothing like an Aguna, how dare you compare your problem to their pain. They can’t marry, they can’t have children, they are imprisoned by their abusive ex. Unless being gay, is your religion, your civilization, your heritage, your total being, you need to evaluate if your sex-drive defines you and overrules everything else. My heterosexuality is a small part of my being, it does not rule me, dominate me, and define me. Before I am a heterosexual, I am a Jew, I am a husband, I am father, I am a son, I am a brother, I am a man. and only then would I mention my sexual preference if at all. Don’t be so proud, how are you building up the Jewish people? Tell us about how many children you have, how you have made a commitment to a Jewish woman, like your mother is, and you are continuing our people. Some things are forbidden, no matter how much we desire them, just like I can’t take my neighbor’s wife, I can’t take an underage girl, I can’t take my daughter, being “GAY” is just wrong. That’s the way it is.

    whoffman says:

    Indeed, the writer was never married, because that was not an option at the time. But it is now, and in fact, two men CAN be married legally and call it marriage in many states, and many countries (including Israel, which recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere), and many synagogues (including Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist). You may not like it, and your synagogue may not approve, but that doesn’t change that fact that most Americans, most Jewish denominations, and an overwhelming majority of American Jews do approve.

    steve kay says:

    No,Yechezkel, you have it wrong. YOU are the one who cannot marry a man and call it a marriage. Others CAN. Deal with it, buster!

herbcaen says:

between agunot and me, we lived in a
shared limbo, chained indefinitely to a partner we no longer shared our
lives with in practical terms, but unable to move forward… since your original religious ceremony was meaningless, you were not chained in the religious sense. Kind of like debating whether a woman who was circumcized in Africa needs a brit milah. What a useless exercise in navel gazing.

silverbackV says:

I can’t find any sympathy for this. Every string was pulled to get into this situation. Many people in this world are forced to live with their mistakes, this should be no exception.

You say that religiously as well as secularly you were an agunah.

This does not make sense to me, religiously according to orthodoxy you were not married. And concerning reform and conservative, I’m sure if you could find a rabbi to marry you you could find a rabbi to divorce you.

Also you should know that in orthodoxy a woman can refuse a get and drag out the process.

I fell in love with my black Labrador Retriever, Kingdon. Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, a Reconstructionist Rabbi married us in a quiet ceremony in our backyard. While camping in Maine, I left the car door open and Kingdon ran out the door and disappeared with a Border Collie that had been frequenting the campsite. I have been an Aguna ever since. Rabbi Alpert has been of little help as she won’t write a get between me and Kingdon, as she is reluctant to I’ve a get without the other sides consent.
Can someone please help me?

Terrific article, Seth. It provides a nice, personal touch to a daunting and Byzantine legal (and religious) process. Sadly, many of the comments here are childish and unhelpful. As always, best of luck to you, and keep writing.


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A Chained Man

Thanks to the patchwork of laws about same-sex marriage, I got trapped in legal limbo when I wanted a divorce