Challenge to Florida's Anti-Gay Relationship Initiative - Couples Profiles

Couple profiles - Challenge to Florida's Anti-Gay Relationship Initiative

Jon Durre and Robert Sullivan

Robert Sullivan and Jon Durre with their daughter Courtney.

Jon Durre, 53, and Robert Sullivan, 39, have been together for 11 years.  Jon, a former fundamentalist minister, was previously married with four children. As a result of his religious upbringing, he had a very difficult time accepting his sexual orientation.  Robert helped Jon to come out and accept who he is.  Today, they are lucky to be blessed with a large supportive family.

The couple lives in Pensacola, where they started a business selling technical recruitment for a software system that eventually employed 13 people.  Unfortunately, Jon was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in 2001, and his weekly chemotherapy sessions made him too sick to work.  Because he was the main salesperson for the business, they soon had to dissolve the company.  

Robert found a support job at a local recruiting firm that pays approximately $30,000 per year.  Jon receives disability, but almost all of it goes to insurance and prescription drug costs.  If Robert's employer offered domestic partner benefits, they would save hundreds of dollars each month.  

The financial loss has been a huge strain on their family.  Before Jon got sick, the couple was helping to support Jon's elderly parents, who were also suffering from severe medical problems - his father from heart disease and his mother from breast cancer.  The couple was forced to move into a smaller home, which forced Jon's parents into an apartment.  As a result, Jon's 76-year-old father, also a former minister, had to take a job at K-Mart because he couldn't support himself and his wife on his small retirement.  

""Being sick like I've been has forced Robert and me to face many challenges,"" said Jon.  ""I'm lucky that I have a supportive family that I can trust not to cut Robert out of my life, but when I go to the hospital I have to worry that a staff person isn't going to let Robert visit me or be a part of the medical decisions on my behalf.  And while I'm determined to fight this for as long as I can, it scares me to think that a funeral director or some other personnel might treat Robert as a stranger if I should die."" 

Robert added, ""We've faced a lot together.  I just can't imagine that it's possible that the people of Florida would want to use our constitution to make it harder for people like us who are going through challenging times."" 

Dee Graham and Signa Quandt

Dee Graham and Signa Quandt with their daughter Charlotte.

Golf was Signa Quandt's first love, but in 1977 she met Dee Graham, a sports reporter who would go on to become her life partner of 28 years. The couple lives in St. Petersburg, where they've raised three children who are now all young adults.  Signa and Dee also have a 14-month-old grandson they take care of during the daytime while his mother attends college. 

Dee is still a journalist, but she also serves as an ordained minister with the International Council of Community Churches and the Unitarian Universalist Association. She's also a graduate student at the University of South Florida - St. Petersburg, where she's an adviser to the student newspaper and works part-time as a substitute teacher in the Pinellas County public schools.

In 1993, Signa was diagnosed with Sjogren's Syndrome, an immune deficiency disease that has brought on a host of serious health problems including pulmonary fibrosis, a blood disorder, and diabetes.  Her illnesses have left her significantly disabled and she requires oxygen full time and the assistance of a service dog.  Signa's doctors have warned her that the disease could cause her to die at any time. 

Throughout Signa's long illness, Dee has been her primary caretaker and support. The out-of-pocket amount they must spend on Signa's medications - over $5500 per month - has made it impossible for them to afford health insurance for Signa.  But insurance isn't the only thing that has Signa and Dee worried.  ""We've done everything we can to make sure we have all the proper legal papers to protect us when Signa is hospitalized,"" said Dee.  ""Every time we have to go to an emergency room, we face the possibility that our 28 years together will be completely ignored.""  

Last year, when Signa's condition took a frightening downturn and the doctors at the hospital were questioning her ""do not resuscitate"" request, they turned not to Dee, but to the couple's daughter, a teenager who was overwhelmed and terrified by the responsibility of such a decision. In 2000, a cardiac episode caused the hospital to move Signa in the middle of the night without telling Dee, despite notations in Signa's chart saying Dee was her medical surrogate.  The following morning, when Signa asked to call her family, the hospital staff told Signa she would not be allowed to let Dee know where she was.

Every moment counts for the couple, who worry that Dee won't be able to be by Signa's side in the hospital or make decisions for her when she is unable to participate in her health care decisions. If the proposed constitutional amendment is adopted, Signa and Dee will be further limited from access to the protections they so desperately need. 

Richard Nolan and Robert Pingpank

Bob Pingpank and Rich Nolan - the year they met and today.

In love since the Eisenhower administration, Rich Nolan and Bob Pingpank met at a picnic during their freshman orientation week at Trinity College.  Now together for 50 years, they live in West Palm Beach, where they were the first couple in the city to register as domestic partners in February of 2005. Says Bob of their relationship, ""We're like any other couple that's been together for so long - we finish each other's sentences, walk our dogs, and just enjoy each other's company.""

For most of their life, Rich and Bob lived a quiet life in Connecticut in a home that was divided into two apartments and had separate mailboxes to keep the neighbors from suspecting anything.  Because Rich was an Episcopal priest and Bob was a high school math teacher, both of them worried what would happen to their careers if they were found out. On Sundays, they drove separate cars to church.  At home, they shared a life and cared for all four of their parents before they died.

The couple retired in 1994 and moved to Florida.  Rich has already been hospitalized several times since retiring, including for a heart attack and for gall bladder surgery.   They worry about visiting each other in the hospital, their ability to make emergency medical decisions for each other, and whether their wishes with regard to burial arrangements will be honored.

""Our domestic partner registration is the only document we have that proves we're not strangers.  It seems so unfair and wrong that people would want to amend our constitution in a way that would jeopardize what few protections we have for our relationship,"" said Nolan.  

Teresa Ardines and Melissa Bruck

Melissa Bruck and Teresa Ardines with sons Connor and Chandler.

Teresa Ardines, 47, and Melissa Bruck, 37, met in 1995 when they were working in the same municipal office building.  Teresa was a Sergeant for the Miami Police Department and Melissa was an emergency operator for the Miami Fire Department.  

Today, the couple are the proud mothers of twin boys, Connor and Chandler.  Although they used to enjoy downhill skiing and other outdoor sports, the twins take up most of their free time now.  Friday evenings are usually spent making scrapbooks of the boys.  

Before giving birth to their sons, Bruck left the Fire Department for a job with a technology firm that paid better and allowed her more flexibility to care for the boys.  After 23 years on the force, Ardines retired from the Police Department and planned to stay home with their sons.  

When the economy went sour after 9/11, Melissa was laid off and hasn't been able to find a job since.  As a result, Ardines has been forced to go back to work and is currently employed making roughly half what she was making at the Police Department.  While Ardines has good health insurance, Bruck and the boys had to rely on Medicaid.  The state won't allow Ardines to cover Bruck as her domestic partner, and the state has a law that bans her from adopting her own children, making it impossible for her to provide coverage for them as well.  

Ardines learned almost immediately what it was going to be like not to have a legally recognized relationship with her sons when she tried to pick up a copy of their birth certificates.  Although she'd often had to pick up birth certificates as a part of her job as a police officer, she was barred from doing so for her own sons.  ""What a reality check,"" said Ardines.  

Ardines receives a good pension for her many years on the police force, but only spouses are entitled to survivor benefits.  Bruck and the boys would get nothing if Ardines were to die.   

""After putting my life on the line for so many years, it's really disappointing how poorly my family is treated,"" said Ardines.  ""And now there are some who want to amend our constitution so that I'll always be a legal stranger to them.  If the people of Florida really understood how harmful this initiative would really be to families like mine, I can't see how anyone could support it.""  

Juan Talavera and Jeff Ronci

Juan Talavera and Jeff Ronci.

Juan, 37, and Jeff, 44, met over five years ago when they were both working on a campaign to stop the repeal of Miami-Dade County's law banning anti-gay discrimination.  Jeff remembers his first impression of Juan well.  ""I was really impressed with his energy, his passion for his beliefs, and his commitment to fighting for his convictions and his family.""  

They live in Miami, where Jeff was born and raised.  Juan, originally from Nicaragua, is a case manager at Jackson Memorial Hospital in the mental health department, while Jeff is the Director of Marketing and Public Relations for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, where he's worked for 22 years. In his spare time, Jeff is working towards a master's degree in creative writing.  At home, Jeff has to devote a lot of his energy to studying, but the couple also makes time to spend with their family and friends.  

Those family ties are part of what has helped Juan and Jeff realize how much they'd like a family of their own someday.  They worry, though, that their family won't have the same security and protections other families count on. One concern they have is Jeff's pension. He has devoted his entire career to the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which entitles him to a pension when he retires that will make him and Juan financially secure in their old age. But because their relationship is not legally recognized, that pension will not be available to Juan should he outlive Jeff.

""Nothing can take away the love we feel for each other,"" said Juan.  ""But it would be so unfair and wrong to use our Constitution to make it impossible to ever secure protections for our relationship.""

Richard Rogers and Bill Mullins

Richard Rogers and Bill Mullins.

Richard Rogers and Bill Mullins met in Washington, D.C. in 1963 at what doubled as an Italian restaurant by day and a gay bar by night - one of the few places gay people could gather without being harassed by the police.  What began with both of them jockeying for the same free booth turned into a lifetime together.  Both fresh out of the Army, they bonded immediately over their military experiences in Europe (Bill in Germany, Richard in France). 

Bill had a long career in railroad industry, which took the couple all over the U.S.  In 1963, they participated in the March on Washington, D.C., where they heard the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his famous ""I have a dream"" speech.  Thirty years later, the couple retired in Fort Lauderdale after spending time in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Chicago, and Denver. 

While Richard managed to find work in retail sales, Bill's career always took priority.  Now Richard receives a modest Social Security check each month, but the couple relies heavily on Bill's railroad retirement, which is twice the amount Richard receives.  Bill's railroad retirement doesn't recognize Richard as a spouse, so Richard is not entitled to survivor benefits should Bill pass away before him.  While they were lucky to buy their home in Fort Lauderdale before the real estate boom, Richard's not sure how he would get by on his limited income. 

Since their retirement, the couple has put in over 4000 hours of volunteer time at the Oakland Park Veterans Administration Clinic.  ""We try to stay as active in our community as possible.  If I stop to think about what might happen if Bill were to go before me I get really depressed,"" said Richard. 

The couple worked hard with many others for months to secure a domestic partner registry in Broward County and were the first in line to register.  The registry guarantees same-sex couples hospital visitation and the ability to make emergency medical and burial decisions for each other.  

""As seniors we have to face the inevitable, and it felt good to know that we could no longer be kept from seeing each other in the hospital or kept out of conversations about medical care,"" said Mullins.  ""But this initiative jeopardizes all our hard work helping to secure the registry.  If it were to pass, we'd have to face all those worries all over again and I don't see how that's fair."" 

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