Ani DiFranco never wrote a song for this situation.
What happens when a gay partnership, consummated in another state, breaks up leaving half of a house, a Kia Sportage and two young children in the balance? What happens when one former partner suddenly marries someone of the opposite sex and seizes sole custody of the adopted kids? What happens when that person solicits a conservative Christian legal fund to argue that gay relationships are legally bunk?
What happens? Well, it goes to court, of course.
On May 22, Michelle Kulstad, former partner of now-legally-wed Barbara Maniaci, took her estranged lover to trial in a bizarre Missoula County custody case. During that proceeding, Kulstad laid out a strong argument for her rights as a parent to Maniaci’s two young adopted kids, including expert testimony by enough shrinks to turn someone straight.
But what the showcase affair left to be desired, in the opinion of judge Ed McLean, was a point/counterpoint on how, if at all, Montana legally recognizes gay relationships. This is the moment Maniaci’s evangelical benefactor, the Alliance Defense Fund, had been waiting for. On the June 6 filing deadline, briefs rolled in from both sides arguing whether the former couple’s long live-in relationship entitles Kulstad to parental rights.
Alliance attorney Austin Nimocks did not respond to requests for comment as of press time, but answers in a lengthy brief, “no.” “No amount of living together or otherwise can make their relationship metricious (“marriage-like” in the absence of state law defining civil unions) or will ever permit their relationship to ripen into actual marriage,” Nimocks writes.
“What relationship my client had with Barbara Maniaci has no bearing on her rights as a parent,” says Kulstad attorney Susan Ridgeway, who bases her case on a piece of state law that grants parental status to a partner (gay or straight) when the legal guardian permits a parental relationship to form. “What we are trying to prove is that a full child-parent relationship was established between Michelle and the children.”
McLean is expected to rule on the case soon, but the political impact is already measurable. Although Montana seems unlikely to start issuing gay marriage certificates any time soon, this could help to define what rights those in out-of-state civil unions hold under the Big Sky.
On the other hand, a lesbian going straight and saddling the evangelical movement to advance her child custody case might be too arcane for common application. “This is a very unusual case—it’s definitely the first of its kind in the state,” says Alliance spokesman Greg Scott.
Confronted by such quagmires, we clearly need direction from a higher power. When Ani comes to the Wilma on July 24, somebody please put in a special request.