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Legal unions may not be recognized if couples relocate. Many face bills, uncertainty, and snubs. When government forms inquire of her marital status, Isabelle Barker sometimes resorts to an asterisk and an explanatory note.
She and her wife, Cara Palladino, were married five years ago in Massachusetts.
Six months later, for job reasons, they moved to Pennsylvania - one of the majority of states that do not recognize same-sex marriages.
Hence the asterisk.
"I'm not single. I'm married in Massachusetts, but I'm not married in Pennsylvania, I'm not married in the eyes of the federal government," she said. "It's this weird limbo, this legal netherworld."
Barker and Palladino and their 15-month-old son, Will, have plenty of company across the United States as gay and lesbian couples confront an unprecedented and often confusing patchwork of marriage laws.
Historically, such laws have been the jurisdiction of the states, not the federal government, and the common practice throughout U.S. history has been for any given state to recognize a marriage performed legally in another state.
The advent of same-sex marriage in 2004 changed that.
Legal in five states
Five states - Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Iowa - and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage. New York and Maryland recognize those marriages even though same-sex couples can't wed within their borders. California had legal same-sex marriage for about five months in 2008.
However, the federal government doesn't recognize same-sex marriage, nor do the vast majority of states, including Pennsylvania. Even with a valid out-of-state marriage license, gay and lesbian couples in those states face uncertainty, extra legal bills, and inevitable rebuffs that straight couples avoid.
Barker and Palladino, who began dating in 1998, moved from New York to Massachusetts in 2004 and married in February 2005 in a low-key ceremony at a Northampton coffee shop.
They had previously exchanged commitment rings - the chief motive for marrying was to obtain health insurance for Barker through Palladino's job at the University of Massachusetts.
Later in 2005, Barker's own academic job ended, and she was offered a postdoctoral fellowship at Bryn Mawr College. The couple decided to move, though they knew there'd be drawbacks.
'Oh, we're married'
"In Massachusetts, people understood what our relationship was," Palladino said. "I miss being able to say, 'Oh, we're married,' and not having to explain it any further."
Day to day, there's plenty of support from friends, neighbors, and employers - Barker coordinates summer programs at Bryn Mawr, Palladino is a fund-raiser at the University of Pennsylvania. They feel comfortable in their diverse Philadelphia neighborhood, Mount Airy, and send Will to a day-care center patronized by several other lesbian couples.
At their lawyer's advice, the two women have stored their legal forms on flash drives that they carry constantly.
Same-sex couples in nonrecognition states got a modest boost last month from President Obama, when he ordered new rules providing such couples with visitation and medical decision-making rights in any hospital participating in Medicaid or Medicare.
Lawyer Tiffany Palmer counsels gay and lesbian couples in Philadelphia. When clients raise the possibility of an out-of-state marriage, Palmer said, "I often advise them it's probably better that they don't. . . .
"They go forward anyway, even though it's not necessarily an easy path."
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