“This is a critical moment for lesbian and gay people in California,” says Alan LoFaso, the affable chief of staff for Assembly member Carole Migden. “We have the opportunity to expand our rights in California,” he says, “and it’s very important, no - it’s crucial, for us to seize this opportunity.”
The critical moment LoFaso refers to concerns new legislation coming out of Migden’s office that gives California’s year-old domestic partner policy more teeth with a host of new benefits and rights for same-sex couples. LoFaso and activists around the state are urging same-sex couples to register as domestic partners in 2001 to demonstrate to the legislature - and thereby to the people in California and around the nation - that gay and lesbian couples want and need the important benefits such legislation provides.
“Use it or Lose it”
Though California is one of just three states in the country to provide statewide recognition of domestic partners, only 6,000 couples have registered here. And given the states’ burgeoning population of 34 million people, there are likely hundreds of thousands of same-sex couples across the state. Fearing a “use or lose it” response from the legislature or the general public, experts argue it is essential for same-sex couples to register this year.
“Numbers speak volumes, especially to politicians,” explains Lisa Belsanti, the Director of Communications for the California Alliance of Pride and Equality, the biggest statewide lobby for gay rights. “When Migden and other legislators are pushing for additional domestic partner benefits in their bills,” Belsanti says, “they need to show there is a segment of the population that is in need of the benefits.”
The current California law grants domestic partners hospital visitation rights and requires government employers contracting with the state to offer domestic partner health benefits. Though widely understood to be a starting point for gay couples on the long road to equality, the law’s limited benefits may account for the small number of couples who registered last year.
Among the benefits of the new bill, however, domestic partners will be able to make medical decisions on each other’s behalf, inherit property, use sick leave to care for a partner or a partner’s child, be appointed the conservator of each other’s estate, and leave a job to relocate with a partner without jeopardizing unemployment benefits. These are, of course, but a small part of the countless benefits automatically available to spouses when they marry.
Not Civil Unions or Marriage.Yet Belsanti and others believe that a strong showing of same-sex couples registering in California will help foster additional pro-gay legislation in the state and help other states to follow suit. “It’s not marriage and it’s not civil unions yet,” she says, “but other states are certainly looking to California to see what happens in terms of our domestic partner laws.”
Given the strong sentiment against same-sex marriage among certain segments of the population, with 36 states passing same-sex marriages bans since 1995, LoFaso is convinced that the path to equality will only happen incrementally: “The referendums against same-sex marriage can be interpreted to say, “If you go too fast, voters will backlash,” so in California we’re doing it slowly and we’re doing it legislatively.”
Attacks from the Right
With a strong Democratic majority in both houses and a Democrat, albeit a centrist one, in the Governor’s seat, California is poised to pass some of the most pro-gay legislation in its history. That said, the organized and well-funded Right in the state is actively campaigning against what they refer to as the “counterfeit” and “anti-marriage” domestic partner laws.
In mid-December, the group “Californians For Families” sent state legislators a “Marriage Protection Pledge,” stipulating that lawmakers “uphold the spirit of Proposition 22 (the anti-gay marriage initiative passed in California last year) and refuse to support domestic partnerships.” Since gay marriage is not likely to appear on the horizon here for a while, the Right has set its sights on dismantling domestic partner laws. “Let’s face it,” says LoFaso, “fear and ignorance is all they have going for them. But fear and ignorance are potent forces in American politics.”
“In 2001 I will register...”
Same-sex couples are strongly encouraged to make registering as domestic partners a resolution for the New Year. Couples and families across the country are clamoring for legal recognition, and here in California all you need do is fill out a simple form, have it notarized, and drop it in the mail with a $10 registration fee. Registering is a public affirmation of your relationship, an important political step for gay rights, and, well, it’s certainly easier than trying to lose those ten pounds you said you’d lose last year.
Patrick Letellier is a freelance writer and activist living in Oakland.