State of the Union

The city starts the process of setting up a domestic partnership registry.

Jonna Lopez and her girlfriend of nearly two years have all the appearances of a couple hunkering down for the long haul. They have jobs, a dog, a house and a son.

But they lack a lot of the benefits and protections that like-minded heterosexual couple could enjoy. For example, Lopez receives health insurance through her partner's employer. She said the employer's health-care contribution was added to her partner's 2002 income taxes by federal law, something that wouldn't happen to a married couple.

"Basically, we're being penalized for not being married, but we're not allowed to be married," said Lopez. "We're taxpayers, too, and we pay more taxes than straight couples. It's being penalized, and most people don't know that it happens."

To ease some of the issues facing people in nontraditional families, the Tucson City Council on Monday unanimously approved an ordinance setting in motion the process of creating a domestic partner registry--the first of its kind in Arizona.

"It's such a great victory for us," said 42-year-old Marco Prado, who stood amongst supporters sporting "DPR Yes" stickers at City Hall. "Steps like this will help us to be up front with everything."

The registry comes with few tangible benefits, but is a symbolic step forward, said Nancy Robinett, co-chair of the city of Tucson Commission on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Issues.

It essentially streamlines the benefits process with employers who offer them, allows registered partners to visit each other in Tucson's hospitals and gives them access to the city's public facilities as a family.

Being able to see each other in the hospital is very important to Dacia and Nancy Franklin-Hicks. Nancy, a 28-year-old master's student at the University of Arizona, has rheumatoid arthritis and will need three or four surgeries within the next five years.

"To us, it's a step closer to equal rights," said Dacia, 25. "For us, it's being recognized by someone as, yes, we're together."

Others, however, saw the ordinance as a possible threat to Arizona's children. Cathi Herrod, director of policy for the conservative Center for Arizona Policy, said the registry is "one more step towards same-sex marriage."

"What does a domestic partnership really accomplish?" she asked. "It doesn't give any rights. We believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman. It's the foundation of our society."

The city's commission members--homosexual and otherwise--took about a year to draft the ordinance. They received comments from Tucsonans, read similar legislation from other communities in the United States and consulted with the City Council, Robinett said.

The registry doesn't require that applicants live within the city to receive benefits and isn't limited to same-sex couples. Robinett said this is important for "the 70-year-old couple who don't want to get married," but wants something to mark their relationship.

Despite being open to heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals alike, the registry is clearly more of a victory for Tucson's GLBT community, say activists. In fact, June, the month when many Gay Pride events are held, was full of gay rights victories across North America.

First, an appeals court in Ontario, Canada ruled a federal law limiting marriage to heterosexuals violated homosexuals' rights. Many gay Americans got married in Canada after the ruling since the country doesn't have a residency requirement for marriage. Still, legal experts say it's doubtful U.S. states will honor those marriages.

Closer to home, Gov. Janet Napolitano unveiled an executive order prohibiting discrimination against state employees on the basis of sexual orientation. She made the announcement at a dinner for the Arizona Human Rights Fund, a statewide gay rights lobby, that was "a great success," with over 900 people attending, said Kristen Felan, AHRF's Southern Arizona director of membership and education.

Then, the Supreme Court last week invalidated a Texas law prohibiting acts of sodomy between consenting adults, saying it violated their constitutional right to privacy.

Not everyone cheered the decision. Senate majority leader Bill Frist declared his support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in response to the ruling.

"I very much feel that marriage is a sacrament, and that sacrament should extend and can extend to that legal entity of a union between--what is traditionally in our Western values has been defined--as between a man and a woman," he told ABC's This Week. "So I would support the amendment."

Such statements may hint at future battles. In the meantime, supporters are hoping domestic partner registries will catch on in Arizona, even though that could be more of a challenge than it was in Tucson.

Lopez, director of the UA's Pride Alliance and a Tucson native, said the ordinance sailed through the City Council because Tucson is "a liberal isle of goodness" in the midst of conservative Arizona.

"Tucson is full of fair-minded people who can really look at an issue," the 28-year-old said.

Kent Burbank, executive director of Wingspan, agreed the Old Pueblo is "a more progressive, tolerant community" when compared to other places in Arizona. As evidence, he cited the city's distinction of being the first governmental body in Arizona to extend health benefits to the partners of homosexual employees.

Even though Tucson has been a trailblazer in extending services to homosexuals statewide, activists say Arizona lags far behind the rest of the nation.

"I think the language of our ordinance is pretty middle-of-the-road," Robinett said. "There's nothing totally weird or totally cutting edge. It's almost anti-climactic when you look at the United States as a whole because so many communities have this."

Prado, who recently moved to Tucson from New York, said even though activism is more sophisticated in larger cities, there's a sense of camaraderie here he hasn't seen elsewhere.

"It's impressive because there's such a sense of community," he said. "People are very close and they fight for their ideals. Here, the word travels so quick."

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