Gays and lesbians have had many big, splashy unions in the past few years—and now the gay-marriage era has its first high-profile, hideously bitter breakup. Melissa and Tammy Lynn Etheridge’s split has been messy from the beginning, when in the spring of 2010, Tammy took to her blog to write quasi-poetic musings that revealed that all was not well in the house of Etheridge. Now the fight has escalated, with Tammy—whose last name was Michaels until she legally changed it to match her partner’s—claiming she is entitled to far more than the $23,000 a month being provided to cover expenses and child support, and Melissa firing back that Tammy is careless and accidentally burned one of their two kids with a cigarette.
Who says heterosexuals have a lock on greed, petty squabbling, and ugly mudslinging?
Melissa and Tammy started dating in 2001. Two years later, Melissa had proposed to Tammy on one knee and had given her a 3-carat rock. They had a lavish, capital W wedding in September 2003 at Dick Clark’s oceanside Malibu estate, which was attended by 175 guests, including Al Gore, Sally Field, Sheryl Crow, Tom Hanks, and Steven Spielberg. The brides wore Badgley Mischka and swapped expensive platinum and diamond wedding bands. There was even a dramatic candle-lighting and rock-gathering ritual.
InStyle magazine featured the event in a Weddings special issue, interviewing the newlyweds who gushed about each other. Melissa said of seeing Tammy walk down the aisle: “She was truly a vision.”
At the ceremony, they uttered the phrase, “With this ring, I thee wed.” Melissa told InStyle: “It’s the most important thing I’ve ever said.”
The guitar slinger has changed her tune.
Though Melissa had told Oprah magazine that the split was “as mutual as those things can be. It’s sad, and we share two children and she will always be in my life. She’s a wonderful woman and an incredible mother,” in subsequent court filings, she’s claimed that Tammy used the children “as pawns” in their breakup—citing a canceled child visitation in Boston that served as a bait-and-switch for Tammy to serve her court documents. (Emails and calls to lawyers for both Melissa and Tammy Etheridge were not returned.)
The back and forth has sent the gossip blogs into overdrive. But could the conspicuous ugliness actually be a boon to gay marriage?
“Nobody likes to see committed relationships come to an end, but in this country more than half of all marriages end in divorce, so why should our community be any different?” said Lorri Jean, CEO of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. “I think it just illustrates that our relationships are pretty much the same as straight relationships. A lot of them make it and a lot of them don’t.”
And, Jean said, the public’s reaction is a sign of the changing times. “I think that they’re not reacting nearly as bad as they reacted to the Kardashian breakup. There’s been some right-wing gloating about it, but I don’t think it’s been all that huge a topic of conversation. Which I think is probably more a reflection of 'Well, yeah, just like anybody else, gay people get divorced.'”
She’s right. If you check out the comments on TMZ, Perez Hilton, and the Hollywood Gossip—hardly forums for elevated discussions—for every homophobic remark you’ll see three like this one from Straight Talkin’ Texan on TMZ: “Nice to see that sexual orientation does not guarantee different relationship problems. Michaels sounds like she’s damn angry. Melissa sounds like a dumb B--ch!”
Or as an E! Online commenter writes: “See? Same-sex couples have the same problems as heterosexual couples when they split. Equal under the law!”
What’s also interesting—and important—about the Etheridge breakup is how it’s illuminated the problems with “domestic partnerships.” Even in California, which is considered a “community-property” state that recognizes registered domestic partnerships and gives nearly all the same benefits as marriages do, in the eyes of many people, including gays and lesbians themselves, the unions are often not considered “real,” a byproduct of what Jean called “oppression sickness.”
“We suffer from failing to give our own relationships the same worth that we think people who are married have, that straight people have,” she said. “When we break up, a lot of us don’t give our relationships the same credit, and so don’t think our partners should be entitled to the same things that they would have been entitled to under marriage laws and of course that is wrong. In some instances it’s because of this internalized homophobia. In other instances it’s because people want to take financial advantage of the fact that the laws do not support us in most states.”
Even the court documents filed on behalf of Tammy hint at the perspective that, in the eyes of the world, this was not a real union, putting the words “marriage” and “divorce” in quotation marks: “Petitioner and Respondent’s relationship was one of the most public and well-known same-sex domestic partnerships in the United States. This dissolution matter has become one of the most well-known ‘divorces’ in the country. The parties lived much of their ‘married’ life in the public eye.”
In all ways, Melissa and Tammy acted and lived like a married couple —though they didn’t get married during the small window of time when it was legal to do so in California before the 2008 passing of Proposition 8 outlawed gay marriage. And when Proposition 8 was passed, Melissa famously vowed to stop paying taxes in protest.
(Interestingly, they didn’t become registered domestic partners until 2005, two years after the ceremony.)
And, in their “divorce,” they are fighting over the same things that straight married couples fight about: money. In one document, Tammy asserts that Melissa has a monthly income of $600,000 to $700,000; in another, she says they had a standard of living of $128,329 per month and that Melissa’s average cash flow was $177,882 (The Smoking Gun also reported that for a single concert Etheridge makes $125,000); court documents show that Tammy requires $5,000 a month for a clothing budget; that the marital home is valued at $4.4 million dollars; that Tammy has already racked up $120,000 in attorney’s fees. In Tammy’s latest filing for sole custody, she asked for an increase in her monthly expenses. Though Melissa gives her $23,000 a month to cover all expenses, it is a far cry from a 50/50 split.
On Sunday, Tammy posted another blog entry that addressed the money woes. “I’m gonna give you $20 allowance per child and call it all yours/but first from your $20 i must withhold $5 for this, $3 for that, another $5 for something else … you’re welcome gold digger. :).”
In court documents, lawyers for Tammy assert: “It is contended that the current level of support does not provide adequate partner support to Respondent based on the marital lifestyle, nor does it adequately provide for the minor children based on Petitioner’s lifestyle and wealth.”
While the headlines mostly attack Tammy for her purported greed, the law is actually on her side—a fact that most people aren’t aware of.
“If you’re a registered domestic partner in California, you have virtually all of the same rights and benefits as marriage,” said Jean. “Not all of them, but when it comes to property dissolution, virtually all of them.”
“What typically happens in a relationship where one person is rich and the other person isn’t is the one person who is rich has to support the spouse who is poorer in the style to which they had become accustomed,” said Jean. “If, for 20 years, they lived with someone who was a multigazillionaire and then they get divorced and they would go back to being a waitress, they don’t have to do that. And especially not if they are raising kids.”
In another post on her blog, Tammy wrote about how she pulled in nearly $2 million in just a few years in the entertainment business through commercial work and being on the Ryan Murphy show Popular, at which she made $20,000 a week. And that, once she gave up her budding Hollywood career to become a full-time wife and mother, her ability to earn at the level she was used to had been decimated.
If she ever hoped to get into showbiz again, it could be hard. Or, as Tammy wrote: “Because until the public heard about me through my other famous ‘person’ at the time, the public THOUGHT I was around 20. COMING OUT not only addressed my personal life directly, but ALSO alerted the ‘BIZNESS’ that I am TEN YEARS OLDER THAN I WAS ABLE TO PLAY ON TV.”
Technically, in California, Tammy has a case for more money. “If they did not have a prenuptial agreement or some other kind of agreement, then any income that either of them made during their relationship belongs 50/50 to the other,” said Jean.
Camilla Taylor, National Marriage Project Director of Lambda Legal, said California’s 50/50 laws clash with the federal government’s Defense of Marriage Act. As far as a settlement goes, Taylor said, “The federal government doesn’t respect their marriage, so the wealthier one is giving it as a gift and that would be taxable.”
Perhaps it’ll take a high-profile case like this one to educate the public on the challenges gays and lesbians face when it comes to both marriage and divorce.
Embarrassingly, even lawyers representing gays and lesbians in a divorce can prey on the it’s-not-a-real-marriage claim and spin it to the wealthier partner’s advantage. Jean said, “Before we had laws that treated us equally in California, people would break up and one of the spouses would take advantage of the discriminatory laws.”
TMZ reported that Melissa Etheridge’s lawyers assert that their vows “were nothing more than a nonbinding commitment ceremony”—the implication being that Tammy shouldn’t be treated as a spouse, forgetting the facts of domestic partnership in California.
“Any lawyer who says, ‘Oh, it’s just a just a domestic partnership and not a marriage,’ is trying to play upon public ignorance. It is harmful to our movement when people in our community allow their lawyers to make those kinds of statements,” said Jean.
As the drama continues to play out in a public fashion, gay marriage supporters can take comfort in one basic fact: “We know that there are straight celebrities in Hollywood who have trouble keeping their relationships together,” said Taylor of Lambda Legal. “So the woes of a high-profile, gay-celebrity couple I suppose in some ways does highlight the common humanity of us all.”