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Lestitian continues fight to spare others

January 21, 2006|By DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

daniels@herald-mail.com

Hagerstown resident John Lestitian thought long and hard about whether to join the group of nine same-sex couples in their legal challenge against Maryland's 33-year-old law against same-sex marriages.

He had spoken publicly about the inequities in the law, mostly to local groups and organizations, but this was different. This would take things to a more intense level. In the end, though, he decided saving others the crushing hurt he went through far outweighed the unknown.

"It was only after careful prayer and reflection that I said 'yes,'" said Lestitian, 40, chief code enforcement officer for the City of Hagerstown. "It's one thing to speak in a community forum and to say that people should be treated equally. It's quite another to open your life to things such as you and I are discussing now.

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"I am willing to let people know," he said. "I don't want anyone to have to go through what I did. I don't want to wish that on anyone."

Lestitian is the only single, gay man included with a group of nine couples who, two years ago, challenged as unconstitutional Maryland's law against gay marriages. On Friday, a Baltimore judge struck down the law, but, at the same time, issued a stay on her ruling pending an appeal that the state attorney general's office filed later in the day Friday.

David Rocah, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said at issue in the case is the denial of rights to same-sex couples that opposite-sex couples are afforded without question under the law.

"Marriage as a legal institution is what confers the legal rights and privileges," he said. "Our society organizes a huge number of rights and responsibilities around the relationship, and lesbian and gay families need these as much as any family."

The notion became painfully clear to Lestitian two years ago when his domestic partner of 13 years, James Bradley, committed suicide in 2003 at the age of 33 while battling depression. Lestitian and Bradley committed to each other in a Catholic service in Washington, D.C. in 1991, Lestitian previously told The Herald-Mail.

Lestitian was prevented from inheriting the couple's house, which was in Bradley's name, and he was forced to pay an inheritance tax on half of their assets. Bradley's will was invalidated because it did not have the signature of a second witness and he was forced to sell the house.

Through it all, Lestitian said, the toughest part was being told by his lawyer that, under the eyes of the law, "domestic partner" had the same standing as "friend," that being none.

"That was the most crushing moment," he said. "Friend? A friend is someone you met two weeks ago. This was family."

"It hadn't occurred to me that anyone would say we were something less than ..." he said. "I am more determined than ever that we will see a day that harm will not happen to families here and across the state."

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