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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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“Sources close to Mayor Jacobs have communicated that the domestic-partner registry is resonating with her a little differently,” Equality Florida’s Saunders said on Jan. 3. “I think our strategy is to aggressively communicate with Mayor Jacobs and the county about specific people and specific needs.”

So far, that strategy isn’t working. At a hastily assembled Jan. 9 press conference, Jacobs all but abandoned the idea that she would go through with a registry at the county level. Instead, she said that to some degree people’s fears were misguided, that the resources they would need to ensure hospital visitation already exist in law. If hospitals don’t honor those wishes, it’s up to citizens to sue. Also, Jacobs was reluctant to assign domestic-partner registries because she doesn’t think that such designations should require a shared domicile. In effect, she wants to remove gay from the equation, make it a “human rights issue.” Jacobs hopes to have the required form – or beneficiary agreement – online at the county’s website within the next few months.

“When the comptroller and I met a week or two ago … some of the concerns I had, what I was hearing about was us creating a database, me having a government employee making sure they don’t lose a record somewhere down the road, and a huge liability – not financial, but moral liability,” Jacobs says. “And when I sat down to talk to [Orange County Comptroller] Martha Haynie, I suddenly realized that this could be a much simpler issue than I could have imagined.”

That “moral liability” has become the focus of gay activists’ ire. Last summer, at the first mention of a county domestic-partnership registry, Florida Family Policy Council leader John Stemberger issued testimony in opposition that sounded very similar to what Jacobs is now promoting. When reached by email for this story, Stemberger had apparently changed his tune, saying that his group “will not oppose a domestic-partner registry which does not create a new protected class and is available to all persons.” Gay activists are now accusing Jacobs of enacting The Stemberger Plan: a beneficiary agreement without any institutional or enforceable codification of same-sex relationships.

It’s worth noting that at the Dec. 12 Orlando City Council meeting, at which the city’s domestic-partnership registry was ratified, Orange County Comptroller Haynie (a Republican) was present to vocalize “support.” She also made an appearance at the afterparty at Hamburger Mary’s and has publicly said that she would like to see the county’s registry handled through her office. Also, in the Sentinel report, Assistant County Attorney Peter Lichtman is quoted as saying federal regulations “have gaps that still leave people vulnerable,” and a registry “would solve the problem of ‘proof’ of a relationship” in legal circumstances. When Orlando Weekly first reached out to Lichtman in October, he was forthcoming in saying that the county’s approval was virtually an assumed eventuality. Lichtman, after all, worked with Broward County on its domestic-partnership registry and agreed to speak with the Weekly further on the issue locally, as well as on his success in Broward. When reached by phone on Jan. 3, Lichtman was unable to comment on anything with regard to either registry. County spokesman Steve Triggs at first downplayed the rift saying that nothing had changed and everything was still on schedule. Now, it appears, he was wrong.

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