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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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Not everyone is buying into the notionthat domestic-partnership registries signal a path toward equality. Late last year, Orlando mayoral candidate Mike Cantone decried the city’s registry for not going far enough. He proposed an equal benefits ordinance – one that would require companies doing business with the city to provide same-sex benefits to their employees – like the one that had just passed in Broward County. More substantially, Demian (his full legal name), the director of longtime activist group Partners Task Force for Gay & Lesbian Couples in Seattle, is of the opinion that domestic-partner registries like that approved in Orlando could actually impede eventual equality.

“Civil Union, or the numerous lesser-powered domestic-partner registrations, at first appear to be an attractive alternative. It seems more winnable – even opponents of legal, same-sex marriage have rhetorically proposed it as a ‘lesser evil,’” he writes in an essay called “Marrying Apartheid” on the group’s website, buddybuddy.com. “It nonetheless represents a system of apartheid, less heinous than South Africa’s, but similar in principle. It is plainly designed to treat one group of citizens in a separate and inferior manner despite their identical circumstances.”

It’s not an unusual rallying call. Next to the more than 1,100 federal rights and hundreds of state laws triggered by heterosexual marriage, the small sampling of dire rights offered by Orlando’s domestic-partner registry are hardly equitable.

And the federal Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 limits states or municipalities from doing much about it.

“[Domestic-partnership registries] were put into place the very first time to give some crumbs, basically,” Demian says over the phone. “They represent enormous inequity, even though we’re all U.S. citizens. … Domestic partner registrations are only valid where they are signed. Legal marriage is transferable to any state.”

Even so, more than 100 states, cities and municipalities in the U.S. provide some form of protection for same-sex couples through domestic partnerships, civil unions or marriage; in Florida, seven cities and counties have registries. As of Feb. 9, 2011, Broward County only had 25 registered couples on the books, while Miami-Dade County had 1,093.

“My perspective is that this is absolutely a step in the right direction,” says Marc Solomon, national campaign director of Freedom to Marry. “Of course it’s a positive thing when people are better able to take care of their loved ones. And it’s a way for straight people in Florida to get to know the struggles, the ups and downs, that gay people have.”

Solomon is currently in New Hampshire fighting the proposed repeal of that state’s marriage laws; he’s simultaneously hoping for a “first win at the ballot box” for gay marriage in Maine. Naturally, he’s also hoping for the best with the fight to overturn Proposition 8 banning gay marriage in California. The South, he says, still has a way to go.

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