On a late-summer morning, Peter Zupcofska—a partner at Burns & Levinson, a blue-chip law firm in Boston—sits in an eighth-floor conference room listening to a client tell a story about a gay cruise to the Bahamas that he and his partner took. "It was one of the first gay cruises," his client says as a point of pride, producing a Sears Portrait Studio-type photo taken in the ocean liner's dining room. As the client details the couple's high-end trips abroad and their frequent stopovers in Thailand, Zupcofska and his associate nod along patiently. They've heard this kind of story many times before.
The client today is a boyish 43-year-old we'll call Eric (he asked that his name be withheld) with good skin, a full head of hair, and a lilting Boston accent. Eric was until recently one half of a May-December relationship. His former partner is a wealthy professional, 20 years his senior; the couple shared a 5,000-square-foot house on Cape Cod, plus a love of fur coats and gold jewelry. But after two sometimes-rough decades together, tempers flared on a disastrous road trip through Italy and Mr. Big kicked Eric out of the house for good.
The two are now in the messy process of untangling their lives—a web that has grown to include four purebred Rhodesian Ridgebacks, three houses, and one financially dependent parent (Eric's). Unless you count the household chores and cooking he'd do nightly, whipping up bearnaise sauce and Brussels sprouts ("They cook better if you score the bottoms") for his breadwinning partner, Eric hasn't worked a day in his life. "It's a 1950s picture of marriage," Zupcofska later explains. "The man is expected to be at home arranging flowers and to have a drink ready for his partner when he walks through the door." As Eric describes their dissolving union, he takes a deep breath, wiping away an errant tear. "He told me I was the most handsome man he'd ever seen in his life. I bought it hook, line, and sinker. And here I sit today."
It's a familiar scene—a jilted ex grousing to the lawyer about the wealthy lover who walked out—and a rich minefield of legal and emotional pathos captured in The First Wives Club, Intolerable Cruelty, and a Netflix queue of movies set in Splitsville. If this morning's play-by-play is a bit more dramatic, that's because we're in the well-appointed office of a high-end divorce lawyer who focuses on gay divorces. Zupcofska has presided over all kinds of same-sex-breakup horror stories. There was the multimillionaire who married a struggling artist after 10 years together but didn't bother to get a prenup. The couple separated after just nine months of marriage, and the painter went after half of his husband's assets. Then there was the filthy-rich aging businessman who decided to trade in his 40-year-old partner for a newer model, breaking the news by boxing up his partner's possessions and changing the locks. "When his partner smashed through the front door, the older man cried, 'Domestic abuse! I'm in fear for my safety!'" Zupcofska recalls. And suddenly the wealthy man had even more leverage.
If you're a gay person who's successful but whose marriage isn't, it's a good bet you will find your way to Zupcofska. He's done a prenup for a gay couple with half a billion dollars in assets, he cowrote the Boston Bar's amicus brief for the Goodridge v. Department of Public Health case—which legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts seven years ago—and, perhaps cementing his bona fides in Boston's gay circles, he was an occasional story consultant for Ally McBeal. Incidentally, just two years after the lesbian Goodridge couple won their landmark decision in the Massachusetts Supreme Court, their marriage fractured. They separated and, three years later, filed for divorce.
Marriage is about the right to stand up in front of your family and proclaim your love for someone else and to have the state sanction that committed union. Marriage entitles you to a history of laws, to a financial and custodial framework to tie two people's fortunes (in every sense) together and to separate them with dignity. The right to end a marriage fairly and legally is something the estimated 4 million gays in America are fighting for. Even if they don't know it.
Zupcofska has completed the dissolutions of hundreds of same-sex marriages and partnerships, mostly in New England, and he says gay breakups are every bit as heated as the divorces of straight couples. Except here we have two uncompromising male egos to contend with. "It's very often a War of the Roses situation. It's 'He said, he said.'I've seen hundreds of thousands of dollars in property destroyed. People would rather break something than let the other party have it. 'Guess what he just did? He smashed our collection of Dresden pottery that was going to the Museum of Fine Arts!' It's soap-opera law."
If it really is daytime drama—and that's how it feels in his office this morning—here's what you missed on last week's episode. Eric, our 1950s housewife, is now living in a condo owned by his ex while the details of their settlement are hammered out. How's that going? "My ex came by with an inspector to look at the stove," Eric says. "He said he was bringing Paolo [his name has been changed here] with him. I thought, 'Paolo? Who is Paolo?' Lo and behold, I find out they're living together. Paolo is 32 and fresh from Brazil."
According to estimates by New York state officials, same-sex marriage—legalized this summer in a stunning late-night victory courtesy of Governor Andrew Cuomo—will bring $391 million to the state economy over the next three years. But lost amid the talk of all that loot is the windfall of gay divorce. That's one of the reasons Zupcofska, himself a happily married gay man, will move to Burns & Levinson's recently opened Manhattan office this fall. He bought a beautiful glass-box apartment in Hell's Kitchen, close to the theater district (naturally) and his firm's new office in Rockefeller Center. He'll be inducted into the New York Bar this month, and he expects to be busy right away, commuting between New York City and Boston to enrich his sizable practice. So is Zupcofska an ambulance chaser coming to the Big Apple to pick over the carcasses of all of these soon-to-be-dead gay marriages? He doesn't see it that way. "One of the most important assets of marriage is the ability to get divorced," he says. Is he a cynic? "I wouldn't say I'm cynical… " Does he see dollar signs? "It's a great opportunity."