Broward County Celebrates Domestic Partnerships
By Troy Crago, News Editor

Standing in line during the first day that Broward County provided for the registration of domestic partnerships, Gary Keating looked at his partner Richard Schultz in a new light.  Despite being together for over 17 years, both men were overwhelmed with emotion.

“We were both surprised,” says Keating, who co-owns the Mangrove Villas with Schultz.  “It was much more meaningful than we had ever anticipated.”

Keating and Schultz are among the over 600 couples – 75% of them same-sex couples - who have sworn their commitment as domestic partners in a registry that gives homosexual and unmarried heterosexual couples some of the rights enjoyed by married couples.

There are a significant number of couples living committed family relationships who establish personal and emotional relationships outside
 the bonds of traditional marriage.  Because of their diversity, many townships and government agencies adopt a system for these relationships to be recognized and registered.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, many of these couples will be expressing their commitment in many public and private ways, and inevitably, many of them will formally register their unions with domestic partnership registration.

What Is a Domestic Partnership?

In the age of AIDS, increasing numbers of gays and lesbians seek stable relationships.  For many, those relationships bring home the realization that they are not treated on equal footing with their straight counterparts.

If at least for the time being the option of getting married is out of reach for many Broward County couples, some marriage-like benefits, typically called domestic partnership, are not.  As the debate over legal recognition of same-sex relationships heats up, the polls have shown that ever-growing segments of the public support extending some benefits to gay couples.

There are many levels of domestic partnership.  They range from simple registries to attainment of basic rights such as health insurance, pension benefits, family leave and inheritance rights.
 
The Benefits

In concrete and less tangible ways throughout Broward County, the legal status attached to domestic partnership has meant different things to different people in their everyday lives.

More than 100 couples signed up the first week in July of 1999.  An overwhelming majority of registrants are gay and lesbians.  Less than 10% were unmarried heterosexuals.

Some couples have used their new status in different ways.  One woman, 
armed with the domestic partner certificate, confronted a funeral parlor that has refused to accept her as a close relative.  She was allowed to make future funeral arrangements for her ill partner.

Many other couples have used their status to make symbolic, political points about their sexuality.  Keating said he and his partner were initially not looking for marriage.  But he was troubled about what might happen if his partner was involved in an unforseen accident.  Could Schultz visit him in the hospital?

Keating had worked in an environment where “ I witnessed time and time again family members not allowing a partner into the hospital in those intense, and often final, moments... now  we are guaranteed the right to make health decisions.  To me, that is major.”

Same Visiting Rights

“We’re still hundred and hundreds of things behind in privileges and rights given to heterosexual married couples,” Keating added

Under this initiative, registered homosexual and unmarried heterosexual couples are granted the same standing as married couples in hospital and correctional facilities.  They are also granted visiting rights and are able to make decisions as health care surrogates or pre-need guardians.  Those who work for Broward County can elect health insurance coverage for their partners and use all forms of leave, including sick leave, annual leave, family illness leave and bereavement leave to care for their partners or the dependents of their partners.

“It’s a major statement about the legitimacy of these families in our society,” said Karl Lutgens, a gay professional who is considering registration with his partner.

Equal Pay for Equal Work?

The argument put forth by advocates of domestic partnership benefits in the workplace is that they are equal pay for equal work.  Their proponents say that if married heterosexuals get family leave and health insurance coverage for their loved ones, it is unfair to deny those benefits to gay employees.  

In fact, employee benefits are considered employee compensation.  The Society for Human Resource management says that benefits constitute 40% of an employee’s compensation.  

A growing number of employers are providing domestic partnership benefits for their unmarried, partnered employees.  They include some high profile names like IBM.  A recent report by KPMG Peat Marwick found that 13% of all firms offer health benefits to domestic partners of the same sex.

Broward County Commissioners encourage this practice by offering preference to contractors who provide benefits for domestic partners of their employees.

A Binding Agreement

“It means something,” said Brad Kane, who also registered with his partner Steve Shuman on the very first day.  “The more people say, ‘We are domestic partners and we have this piece of paper,’   the more it will begin to be known that this is a binding agreement and it will be respected.”

Kane and Shuman registered “because it is a commitment.  It is the first step in obtaining rights we did not have before.”  They were not concerned with the legal benefits that registration would provide.  Their attorney had already prepared legal documents to cover all of the bases that domestic partnership merely touches upon.

Since its inception, there have been only 6 terminations of domestic partnerships filed with the county.  Only 2 of those couples were same-sex couples (one gay, one lesbian), which puts the “divorce rate” of committed same-sex couples in Broward County at less than 1% - a far cry from the over 50% divorce rate among their married counterparts.

The Future

Both Keating and Kane agree that the gay community in Broward County has not taken advantage of these benefits.  “Until more committed couples register, society will not see the full impact of our numbers,” says Keating.

In their frequent travels around the world, Kane and his partner have been advocates of domestic partnership registration with other couples they meet.  Frequently they are greeted with amazement and awe.  “People here don’t realize how lucky we are to live in Broward County,” said Kane.

Keating agrees.  “We felt strongly that we had to do this, not only for ourselves but for the greater society at large.  It’s one more barrier that has been knocked down regarding our families and our lives.”

The registration process is very simple.  Contact Broward County governmental offices for information.  

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