Melissa Etheridge and Tammy Lynn Michaels’ breakup: yet another reminder of why legalized gay marriage matters

Editor’s Note: AfterEllen.com is a sponsor of Melissa Etheridge’s Fearless Love tour.

In all this struggle to finally be granted the full, legal right to marry, what often gets overlooked is the other side. With marriage sometimes comes divorce. But because there are still no federal statutes governing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people’s marriages, that means there aren’t clear roadmaps to follow when they end. And that, of course, is where things can get messy. If you need any more evidence take a look at what is happening in the split breakup of Melissa Etheridge and Tammy Lynn Michaels.

In April, the couple announced the end of their nine-year relationship. Together since 2001, they stuck together through Melissa’s breast cancer and rejoiced together at the birth of their now 3-year-old twins. They held a commitment ceremony in Malibu in 2003, but then didn’t re-tie the knot during the brief window when California allowed gay marriage in 2008. When Californians voted to pass Proposition 8 and ended the right of gays to marry, Melissa wrote an impassioned editorial in The Daily Beast saying she wasn’t going to pay her taxes as an act of civil disobedience.

“So my wife…. and I are not allowed the same right under the state constitution as any other citizen. Okay, so I am taking that to mean I do not have to pay my state taxes because I am not a full citizen. I mean that would just be wrong, to make someone pay taxes and not give them the same rights, sounds sort of like that taxation without representation thing from the history books…. Okay, cool I don’t mean to get too personal here but there is a lot I can do with the extra half a million dollars that I will be keeping instead of handing it over to the state of California.”

What a difference two years makes. News of the couple’s surprise split has gone from “awww” to “ewww” in the headlines, where much of it is now playing out. Gay marriage or straight marriage, the end of a marriage is always complicated. So with it has come child custody battles, spousal support claims and she said, she said finger pointing.

Melissa hasn’t said much about the split in public except to tell Oprah it was “sad,” but “as mutual as those things can be.” Instead she has let her legal filings do her talking, like earlier this month when she filed a petition for dissolution of domestic partnership citing irreconcilable differences and asked to court to not award financial support to Tammy. Then later her lawyer successfully fought Tammy’s legal request for $25,000 in living expenses.

Tammy hasn’t spoken publicly either, but she has blogged – a lot. After almost every filing on Melissa’s behalf, Tammy has posted a response on her site Hollywood Farm Girl. She said she was “blindsided” by the divorce filing and “borrowing cash left and right from people to get through this summer.” All of them have since been removed, but not before several news and gossip sites reported on them. And the news has, for the most part, treated their spilt as they would any other ugly celebrity breakup – with obnoxious, blaring headlines.

Usual suspect Perez Hilton (no link deserved) has had his usual tasteless things to say like, “More Lezlicious Drama From Melissa And Tammy!” Mainstream media from People to Us Weekly have been somewhat more muted, glomming on to the back-and-forth sniping with stories like “Angry Ex Alleges Melissa Etheridge Left Her With Just $4” and “Melissa Etheridge: Tammy Used Our Children as ‘Pawns’” This spilt is being lumped in and largely treated like a splashy Hollywood divorce, like Sandra Bullock and Jesse James and Charlie Sheen and Denise Richards. It’s sad to say, but not having a bunch of headlines screaming “Melissa’s lesbian lover demands galimony!” is a small measure of progress.

In the end, the bigger story of this high-profile split isn’t Team Tammy or Team Melissa. This isn’t about which side is looks better, which side looks worse. This isn’t even about who is right or wrong. Just because an initial judge sided with Melissa doesn’t mean she is right. Odds are she can afford a better attorney. Just because Tammy posts it on her blog doesn’t mean she is right. I post all the time that Tina Fey is my wife, doesn’t make it true (sadly).

This is about what happens after for better and for worse goes to the worst place possible. For straight couples, while things can still get nasty the law is at least clear. For gay and lesbian couples, the waters are muddy. Will the courts see this as a marriage and make Melissa pay child and spousal support, as they normally would for straight couple where one partner supported the other financially through the relationship? Will the courts see them as joint parents, as they normally would for straight couple with children they’ve raised together?

With rights come responsibilities. As unjust as it is that we still can’t have that legal piece of paper deeming it so, we shouldn’t let the lack of that legal piece of paper make us act like this is any less true when things don’t work out. We need to rise above the fact that legislation hasn’t caught up to us yet. And the law needs to hurry up and realize that love makes a marriage, but divorce is divorce.

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