Until marriage, there’s Georgia Benefits Counsel

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imageGay Atlanta attorney Christopher Seely got to thinking: With no gay marriage, what could he do for same-sex couples in Georgia whose relationships need legal backup? His answer: a new nonprofit providing free legal services. To protect their partnerships, gay couples who can afford it must do an end-run around the lack of marriage laws—in fact, laws against same-sex unions—when it comes to securing simple wills, financial powers of attorney and advance directives for health care. “Discrimination is written into our constitution,” Seely says. “That creates an economic disparity, a discrimination that costs extra for legal protections that automatically come for the price of a marriage license to straight couples.” The seed for Georgia Benefits Counsel, which has already started providing free legal services to gay couples across the state--see some of their happy couples on the GBC Facebook page--began back when Seely (photo, right) was at UGA School of Law. As Georgia voters approved a constitutional ban on same-sex unions in 2004, he was digging into coursework after leaving a former career as a reporter for Southern Voice. As he became a member of the state bar, his desire to use his degree to contribute to the gay rights movement grew in earnest. “I was looking for a way to work within the existing framework of the law to help people and provide relief now,” he says. “I wanted to change individual lives for the better, and I felt compelled to do something for the community and see how I could do that on a personal level and a local level.” GBC is a brainchild Seely has lovingly nursed into reality since last year. He works fulltime at the U.S. Department of Labor helping enforce equal employment opportunity regulations for federal contractors. He and secretary David Rutland (photo, left) volunteer their time with GBC and are growing the organization even as they take on clients to help shore up the legal protections they need—for free. “It’s difficult enough for any couple to build a relationship based on trust and love, and to think the state could deny and demean the importance and gravity of their relationship after what they go through on a personal level is a denial of the sanctity of that relationship,” he says. “Denying same-sex couples civil rights doesn’t somehow preserve the sanctity of straight married couples. To me, that discrimination is a burden imposed on people in same-sex relationships that we can help mitigate.” The price is high for gay people in longterm relationships to protect their property, their wishes for after they die, and their partners' rights to make choices for them if they’re incapacitated. Georgia Benefits Council helps lift the financial and emotional burden. “Those things can seem daunting to some people who don’t have the time, the energy to find a lawyer, pay the money, and go through the process,” he says. “People shouldn’t have to pay these costs just to prove the validity of their relationship. We walk you through it.” The burden may be even higher in smaller towns and mid-sized cities where gay couples may have fewer resources and less accepting environments where “even if you have protections, the family may try to fight it,” Seely says. That’s why GBC is going to the people it serves in places like Athens and Augusta and has begun a statewide tour working with gay organizations to find pockets of people who need the help. “It’s pretty gratifying,” he says. “We do a will-signing ceremony in their home. We get to see their home life, and I think it’s a personal, informal and intimate setting that makes people feel comfortable.” Seely considers GBC a critical stop-gap measure until the day when same-sex relationships are recognized by law. “The dream is for same-sex relationships to gain legal recognition the same as opposite sex relationships, and once that happens, I’d be happy if the organization becomes obsolete,” he says. “But until then, there needs to be something in the interim.” Georgia Benefits Counsel is awaiting its 501(c)3 status. The group is actively seeking board members, community input and more financial contributors. Seely presents the organization to the LGBT congregation at Our Hope Metropolitan Church in Athens after Sunday services on May 15 at 2 p.m. The presentation is open to the public.


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