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COVER STORY

Separate, not equal

Orlando's same-sex couples celebrate the city's new domestic-partnership registry, but a fumble by Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs dampens the mood

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At the regularly scheduledDec. 5 meeting of the Orlando City Council, a barely audible voice brought the room to tears. It belonged to a young man, awkward with hair coloring and shyness, unexpected by the throngs of red-shirted activists in the crowd who’d come to show support for the city’s proposed domestic-partner registry – though Ryan Beck had no apparent partner, he’d come to show his support as well. Mayor Buddy Dyer had already made the mistake of suggesting that some of the assembled audience waive their right to speak in order to expedite the affair, so he listened patiently as Beck stammered through his underprepared declaration, explaining how important it would be for somebody like him to know that the city officially recognized his homosexuality as something more than an annoyance. He had been bullied, he said.

And he wasn’t alone. Activist upon activist approached the dais at City Council meetings for two consecutive weeks to argue that Orlando was on the “right side of history” in considering extending basic rights – the rights to have hospital visitation, to make end-of-life decisions, have prison visitation, share decisions about education of children within a relationship, to make funeral arrangements – to same-sex couples living within city limits. Those who spoke told their stories: couples told stories about being denied the right to visit a partner in a hospital, tales of anxiety about the potential to encounter similar situations, reflections on economic impact and explanations of deeply religious compassion (on one side) and damnation (on the other). Without much debate from the commissioners, the ordinance allowing domestic partners to register at the city clerk’s office was unanimously approved on Dec. 12. Starting Jan. 12, the city will allow its first couples to register, for $30 per couple.

From the beginning, the movement toward greater equality for the region’s LGBT community had been a two-pronged affair: first the city, then the county. Last summer, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs went public with her intention to consider the matter soon after Dyer laid out his plan to pursue it. Orange County had already passed its anti-discrimination human rights ordinance in October 2010, before Jacobs’ inauguration, and Jacobs, who stumbled a little on the issue of gay rights during her mayoral campaign, seemed to be warming up to the idea, even passing domestic-partner benefits for county staff. Now that the city has passed its ordinance – including caveats to make the inclusion of the county seamless – Jacobs seems less than supportive of a countywide registry. Activists worried that her support was wavering, and she proved that their fear was justified during a press conference on Jan. 9 in which she all but dismissed the concept of a registry, voicing support instead for a more “inclusive” document that wouldn’t require an ordinance or the writing of a new law. In other words, her proposal would avoid the topic of gay relationships altogether. If the registry can’t even pass at the county level – not to mention the numerous failed state and national efforts to address marriage equality – the prospects for this last piece of the civil rights puzzle are measurably grim. You can see your partner in the hospital, within city limits: that’s equality.

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