Orlando to pursue registry for gay couples
7:28 PM EDT, June 12, 2011
Every time Joyce Ducas walked into a hospital room or met a new doctor treating her partner, Claudia Asbury, for lymphoma, Ducas tensed up, fearing she might have to fight just to stay by her side.
That paled next to what she faced when Asbury died a year ago. Despite a decade together and thousands spent on power-of-attorney documents, Ducas was turned away when it came time to sort out Asbury's final affairs, from the funeral home to the state motor-vehicle department.
"I was being told, 'You don't count.' It was so horrible," said Ducas, 61, a clinical psychologist. "You're at the pinnacle of this emotional experience, and to have to go through all of that on top of it. It was a nightmare."
The Orlando couple could have benefited from a domestic-partner registry, a way to legally memorialize a relationship.
With support from Central Florida's gay community, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said he plans to ask the City Council to consider such a registry this summer, but it's unlikely Orange County leaders will move as quickly.
The registries, which exist in a few Florida communities, don't bestow the same privileges as a marriage or even a civil union, but they do give unmarried couples — gay and heterosexual alike —a few legal rights that most people take for granted.
Those who record their relationship in the registry would have visitation rights if a partner is hospitalized or jailed and the ability to make funeral arrangements. It could also help in some other situations, such as picking up a partner's child from school.
Gay-rights activists say they're pleased Dyer has embraced the idea.
Most gay families in Orange County "are legally invisible," said Joe Saunders, a state field director for Equality Florida. "Couples that have been together for decades are treated in the eyes of the law as legal strangers."
But a registry adopted by Orlando commissioners wouldn't apply outside city limits, potentially creating a confusing situation, where someone would be able to visit a partner at Florida Hospital's main campus in Orlando but perhaps not at Florida Hospital East, for instance.
Dyer recently urged Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs to partner with him on developing the proposal so it would apply countywide.
"It seems like it would make more sense to work together on it, just because of the jurisdictional boundaries," said Dyer, a Democrat. "If we are both going to have one, it would make sense to adopt identical ones."
Jacobs, a Republican, said she might also support a registry, but it's not a top priority now, as the budget, ethics reform and other issues dominate her agenda.
"It does makes a lot sense to move forward in a coordinated fashion," Jacobs said. "But I just cannot realistically say that we're going to take this up in the fall."
Advocates say the two governments should work together to avoid a possible patchwork of legal rights for residents. Mary Meeks, an attorney and member of the group Orlando Anti-Discrimination Ordinance Committee, said she hopes Orlando will take up and study the issue, and both governments could vote on it by fall.
Until now, Orlando has led the way on gay-rights measures, beating county leaders by several years in passing an expanded anti-discrimination ordinance and by offering benefits to its own same-sex employees.
But Meeks thinks Orange County government has grown more gay-friendly. County commissioners recently voted 6-0 to extend benefits to the partners of same-sex employees, and Meeks raised the idea of a domestic-partner registry with Jacobs during that debate.
Meeks said she is confident Jacobs will support a registry even if she doesn't take the lead.
Broward and Miami-Dade counties already have a registry, according to the Human Rights Campaign. So do cities such as Gainesville, Key West, Miami Beach and West Palm Beach. Most open their registries to same- and opposite-sex couples, though their residency requirements differ.
Supporters brush off critics who suggest that such systems essentially give gays the right to marry.
Marriage bestows about 1,200 different rights and benefits, Meeks said. "We're just asking for five or six."
Orlando Commissioner Patty Sheehan, who is gay, said many people don't consider the legal ramifications of a marriage.
"They just think of the man and woman on the wedding cake," she said. "But there are issues that need to be dealt with when you're in a long-term relationship, and that's all the gay community is trying to do, bit by bit, to get these things taken care of."
Sheehan predicted a registry would win City Council and County Commission approval.
Orange County Commissioner Jennifer Thompson has spoken in favor of adopting such a registry. But like Jacobs, she sees no urgent need for it.
"It's the right thing to do," Thompson said. "But moving forward, it would be prudent to look closely at it."
If it progresses, it would be the third significant gay-rights measure to go before county leaders, who also voted last year to expand its discrimination protections to include gay and transgender residents.
The only one to oppose that, and an extension of county benefits to same-sex workers, was Commissioner Fred Brummer, who wasn't present when the commission approved the benefits change.
The Apopka accountant said he knows little about domestic-partner registries, but it would seem "redundant" if same-sex couples just secured a will and other power-of-attorney documents.
But Ducas said that strategy doesn't work every time.
"It's not redundant, and it also makes us [gay couples] pay an awful lot of money to secure these rights," Ducas said. "To me, that's the epitome of discrimination."
Copyright © 2011, Orlando Sentinel