05/13/2008 06:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Reality in Television

On Sunday, May 11, millions of viewers tuned in to watch the season finale of ABC's Emmy®-winning series Brothers & Sisters, which featured the wedding of two of its characters - Kevin Walker and Scotty Wandell. Beyond being a momentous event for the characters, this stood as the first such ceremony of two gay characters that are series regulars on network television. Such a historic event on a hit TV show might lead some to believe that it reflects the everyday reality for gay couples across this country. If it is on a TV, it must be real in some form, right?

As excited as I may be about this plot development, my work on behalf of the gay community compels me to remember the inequality that will exist for the California couple. Earlier this season, we saw Kevin's sister marry her boyfriend. Their wedding was one that granted them all the protections and responsibilities of marriage in the eyes of state and federal law; Kevin and Scotty's ceremony did not confer the same.

Though California possesses some of the most comprehensive domestic partnership protections in the nation, registered domestic partners there lack the security and legal protections that are provided to married couples at the federal level. Yes, Kevin and Scotty are fictional TV characters, but their loving, committed relationship is representative of millions of real-life gay couples who do not have the legal protections they need to take care of each other and their families.

One such couple was Seattle's Charlene Strong and Kate Fleming. They had been in a loving, committed relationship for more than nine years when a December 2006 rainstorm changed Charlene's life forever. When their home began to flood, Kate, a well-known audio-book narrator, was trapped in her basement recording studio. After a rescue team pulled an unconscious Kate from their home, Charlene rushed to be with her in the emergency room. Despite their decade-long relationship, a social worker in the ER denied Charlene access to her dying partner because the state of Washington did not recognize their relationship. It was not until Charlene was able to call Kate's sister in Virginia that Charlene received permission to be with Kate as she died.

Even when a couple jumps through every legal hoop it still might not be enough. In Minnesota, Tim Reardon and his partner of six years, Eric Mann, thought they had done everything right. Before their 2001 commitment ceremony, they spent exorbitant sums of money on attorney fees to draft legal documents to ensure embarrassingly meager protections - a partnership agreement, a will, powers of attorney and health care directives. Yet, when Eric passed away from a brain tumor in 2007, Tim was twice denied the right to make decisions about Eric's remains, first by the medical examiner's office and then again when trying to make funeral arrangements.

These obstacles are the everyday reality for gay and lesbian couples across the country. Eight states have constitutional amendments prohibiting marriage for gay and lesbian people. More severely, 18 states have constitutional amendments that prohibit other forms of legal recognition of gay families in addition to marriage. Furthermore, we see opponents to marriage working actively to deny committed couples the ability to take care of one another with organized efforts continuing in states across the country.

And so as huge a fan as I am of Kevin and Scotty the television characters, I can't help but think of the millions of everyday Americans who do not have and are denied the opportunity from having the basic protections of marriage. Their commitment ceremony on Sunday was certainly one to celebrate for its historic nature as a media moment for our community, but it also serves as a far more extensive reminder of the legal protections not extended to couples in Kevin and Scotty's situation.