Dayton couple courts acceptance

Sarah and Suyin Lael are among 14 plaintiffs suing to legalize gay marriage in New Jersey.

By: Marisa Maldonado
   Like many couples, Sarah and Suyin Lael wanted to get married after three years of dating. But as a lesbian couple, they could not legalize their union. So they settled for going to Washington, D.C., and participating in a symbolic marriage ceremony in front of the Internal Revenue Service building with hundreds of other gay and lesbian couples.
   They bought impromptu metal rings at a Subway sandwich shop once they reached the city.
   "We still have them," Sarah said Tuesday in the family’s Dayton home. "But we were clapping so hard, they fell apart."

Managing Editor Hank Kalet says its time to grant marriage rights to same-sex couples.
Dispatches, Feb. 16

   The couple, who have been together since May 1990 and now live in Dayton, call each other "wife" but recognize that that distinction doesn’t carry much weight once they leave their house. But they’ve become part of a lawsuit, now on appeal to the state Supreme Court, that could allow them to exchange rings legally.
   The Laels are one of seven same-sex couples who filed suit in 2002 against the state after being denied marriage licenses. The couples’ claims — filed as Lewis v. Harris — were rejected by the state Appellate Division in June. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Wednesday, with a decision not expected until August.
   For 42-year-old Sarah and 46-year-old Suyin, marriage is as much about protecting their children as it is a symbol of their love and devotion.
   "Your family is really the center of your existence," Suyin said. "You work, you go to school, you’ve done all the right things. But there’s something else you can’t control."
   Checking off "single" on forms doesn’t feel right for Sarah and Suyin, given the length of their relationship. Their legal status as unmarried denies them many of the more than 1,100 federal benefits that married couples receive, such as access to Social Security benefits and the ability to file taxes jointly.
   Since 2004, New Jersey has offered domestic partnerships to same-sex couples, which allows them hospital visitation rights and medical-decision making, as well as joint state-tax status, exemption from an inheritance tax and other benefits. The state health plan also is required to give domestic partners access to joint health insurance.
   But because Sarah and Suyin have privately owned insurance, they cannot add each other to their health policy. Employers also are not obligated to give them time off to care for each other in the event of illness, as married couples can do under the state or federal Family Leave acts, because they are not considered a part of each other’s immediate family.
   When Suyin became ill several years ago, Sarah had to rely on the "grace" of her employers to give her time off to care for her.
   "You feel like you’re relying on good will," Sarah said.
   Sarah, a speech therapist, and Suyin, an administrator at a nonprofit company, moved to Dayton in June. Their three daughters — 8-year-old Zenzali, 6-year-old Tanaj and 5-year-old Danica — all are students at Brooks Crossing School. To distinguish between their parents, they call Sarah "mama" and Suyin "mommy."
   Like most married couples, Sarah and Suyin have decorated their family room with school pictures of their daughters, and a picture of the family, taken at the house of Sarah’s parents on Christmas Eve several years, is perched on a table near the front door of the house.
   The couple met in 1990 at what Sarah described as a "very boring, five-day conference" on working with behaviorally challenged people. They noticed each other from across the room and both felt a connection to each other.
   Suyin said she realized not long after meeting Sarah that their initial connection would be the start of a long-term relationship.
   "On our first date, I asked her if she wanted to have children," Suyin said.
   Eight years later they adopted Zenzali, who was born in Liberia. The couple discussed alternatives such as artificial insemination, but found that international adoption was their first available venue. But only Suyin initially could adopt Zenzali legally — Sarah had to wait several months before she could formally adopt her.
   Sarah and Suyin decided to change their last name together four years ago, before Zenzali started kindergarten, to further demonstrate to others their commitment as a family. The couple discussed every possible combination of their names and even used Scrabble tiles at one point to test combinations.
   Eventually they decided to use Suyin’s middle name as a last name. The couple adopted Tanaj and Danica in 2002 through the Division of Youth and Family Services. Their only requirement was that Tanaj and Danica be younger than Zenzali.
   "We would have liked to have a boy," Suyin said, "but we kind of took whatever came along."
   Sarah and Suyin, who chose to live in South Brunswick because of the diverse community and the quality of the schools, said they have received a warm welcome from their children’s teachers at Brooks Crossing. They attend back-to-school nights and parent-teacher conferences together and made it a point to explain the family’s situation to their children’s teachers before school started in September.
   "We don’t want the kids to carry that weight of explaining," Sarah said.
   The couple has chosen not to enter into a domestic partnership because its benefits are too limited and, as Sarah said, they’re "holding out for the real thing." Sarah and Suyin would welcome the legalization of civil unions, which would give them all the rights of married couples under a different name, if the state Supreme Court rejects their case.
   But they’d rather call themselves married instead of, as they said, "unionized." They would get married if the Supreme Court legalized it but don’t have any vision for a dream wedding — just "one we can afford," Suyin said.
   "I’m more practical," Suyin said. "I just want to be married."
   "It would be incredible if it happens," said Sarah, touching her partner’s hand.