Citing reasons financial, emotional and political, hundreds of gays and lesbians around California took advantage of a new law Monday and began the process of registering with the state as domestic partners.
To some it seemed a giant step, to others a baby step, toward full recognition of their relationships.
"We are involved in a commitment with caring and loving and all the things I hear people say about their husbands and wives," said Sam Catalano, a state employee who hummed the wedding march as he and his partner paid $10 to become registered couple No. 66 at the secretary of state's office in Sacramento.
"But today I have gained one benefit, and those married couples have 1,400," he said, citing federal studies that estimate more than 1,000 legal benefits of marriage.
Actually, the legislation signed into law last year by Gov. Gray Davis--AB 26 by Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-San Francisco)--affords some same-sex couples two benefits: hospital visitation rights (which could otherwise be restricted to family members) and health insurance coverage for the dependents of government employees covered by CalPERS, the state retirement system.
With the new law, California became one of the nation's pioneers in domestic partner policies. Twelve California cities and four counties, including Los Angeles, have their own policies giving health benefits to domestic partners, as do many corporations.
In Vermont last month, the state Supreme Court ruled that homosexual couples are entitled to all benefits and protections related to marriage. And in October, France became the first European nation to legalize civil solidarity pacts.
Across the country, 30 states have enacted laws to prevent same-sex marriages from being recognized, a Californians will decide on such a proposal in the March 7 primary election.
Tens of thousands of couples are expected to register under the domestic partners law. Same-sex couples are eligible, along with heterosexual couples over age 62, who sometimes hesitate to marry because of potential cuts in their Social Security income.
State analysts have no estimate of how much the registrations will cost the state and local governments.
State construction supervisor Billie Norman has been with her partner, Beverly Thames, for 14 years. Every year she has applied to add Thames to her health plan. Every year her application has been rejected.
"I could marry a man tomorrow and they'd give me insurance for him," Norman said, flashing one of the matching diamond engagement rings the two wear. "We're stable, we're homeowners, we're civil servants. There ought to be recognition of that."
The state registration program signals a social shift, Norman said, that inches her and Thames closer to the Elvis-themed wedding they hope to have someday. Similar domestic partner bills passed the Legislature in 1994 and 1998 only to be vetoed by former Gov. Pete Wilson.
In March, California voters will vote on Proposition 22, the Limit on Marriages Act spearheaded by state Sen. Pete Knight (R- Lancaster), which would bar California from recognizing same-sex marriages. No state currently permits same-sex marriage, but some have court cases or legislation pending that could change the situation.
Proposition 22 spokesman Robert Glazier said the campaign has taken no position on domestic partnership registration, but "if someone wants to change marriage in California, they should do it in a very upfront way, not through a back door."
Members of the "No on Knight" camp that opposes the measure predicted that publicity about partnership registration will work in their favor, highlighting the discrimination they believe gays and lesbians face in California and "how the Knight initiative will further discriminate against them," said campaign manager Mike Marshall.
A small line of applicants greeted secretary of state employees when they arrived at 8 a.m. Monday to open the special filings desk, which falls under the ironically named "Limited Partnerships" division. All through the day couples wandered in, many having just learned of the opportunity in news accounts over the weekend.
By day's end, spokesman Shad Balch said 71 couples had registered in Sacramento and at four branch offices around the state and hundreds more had taken out applications.
Among them were retirees and young people, middle class and poor, outspoken and shy. One couple has lived together for 29 years, another for three. For some it was the first official documentation of their relationship, for others one of a series of acknowledgments: city registrations, commitment ceremonies and corporate benefit extensions.
Ken Day, Catalano's partner, said many gay couples they know are reluctant to even bother with the paperwork, a simple one-page form that can be mailed to the secretary of state but must be notarized.
Some think "it's unnecessary and derivative," he said. Others, he said, rolling his eyes, think the very idea is "too heterosexual." A few were not ready for the commitment, which hinges on a pledge of joint responsibility for living expenses.
Among the many rights the state accords to married people but the new law does not extend to same-sex couples are Social Security benefits, inheritance provisions and health coverage after the death of the state employee. It does not give them any of the tax benefits of marriage, and they will not have the right to make medical decisions for each other.
Nor does the law untangle the complicated and expensive arrangements that gay and lesbian couples with children make to share health benefits with, and legal responsibility for, their children.
California Youth Authority counselor Cathyann Intemann spent $4,700 to adopt her partner's daughter so she could count her as a dependent for her state health benefits. The couple rejoiced on learning Sunday that the new law would take effect in time to cover their second child, due this spring.
Intemann's partner is a stay-at-home mother who estimated that she pays at least $3,000 a year for her own health insurance. "The bottom line is this saves us money in our household," Intemann said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
How to Register
The secretary of state's office recommends that domestic partners mail registration forms to the Sacramento office, P.O. Box 944225, Sacramento, CA 94244-2250. Both partners' signatures must be notarized and a fee of $10 enclosed. Forms are available at county clerks' offices and online at http://www.ss.ca.gov, and can be filed in person at the secretary of state's offices in these cities:
* Fresno: 2497 West Shaw Ave., Suite 101
* Los Angeles: 300 South Spring St., Room 12513
* San Diego: 1350 Front St., Suite 2060
* San Francisco: 455 Golden Gate, Suite 7300