Activists Look for Ways to Establish Gay Marriage in California

Times Staff Writer

If Ofelia Morales and her partner of seven years, Auri Nunez, could legally get married, they would have done it a long time ago.

They live together and say they are in a loving, committed relationship, but the gay couple wants the same rights as heterosexual married couples. Morales' employer will not include Nunez on her health insurance plan, and when Nunez needed a root canal recently, Morales scraped together $1,500 to pay for it.

"It's tough because I am the sole supporter of our family," said Morales, who is a community relations representative for a company.

Morales, 25, and Nunez, 38, both of San Bernardino, were among a handful of the couples who gathered on Saturday in Hollywood to brainstorm about how to advance the gay marriage movement in California. The meeting follows last week's decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in which the court said that state's constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to wed.

The decision has refueled the determination of many activists like Morales and Nunez, who have been pushing for several years for the right to get married.

"It gives you the energy to continue to fight," Morales said. "Hope -- that is the best" thing that came out of the Massachusetts decision.

The meeting, which drew about 30 people, was organized by Marriage Equality California, a 3-year-old statewide coalition with nearly 15,000 members pushing for gay marriage.

"When you're gay or lesbian, you can be together for 20 or 30 years and it's almost like you're trapped in this perpetual state of adolescence, because you're always dating your partner," said L.J. Carusone, co-executive director of the organization.

The Massachusetts decision "energizes us in California who are already fighting for this right. We now see a door has been opened, finally," he said.

For Whitney Weddell, 39, and her partner, Donna Douglas, 56, progress in California has been too slow. The Bakersfield couple has been together for 15 years and wants to get married. Weddell called the state's domestic partners law "piecemeal rights."

Gay and lesbian couples in California who register as domestic partners under a new law that goes into effect in 2005 will be granted the same rights, protections, benefits, obligations and duties as married spouses regarding property, children and arrangements after death.

The law will give a partner the right to financial support and child custody after a partnership is dissolved, and it will give a survivor the right to collect the partner's government benefits.

But domestic partners in California will still lack many of the rights of married couples, such as filing joint tax returns or claiming Social Security, Medicare and veterans' benefits.

Brandon Ranta Burton, 34, of North Hollywood and his partner of five years had a holy union ceremony recently in Utah because they wanted to formalize their relationship, he said. They invited 60 close friends and set up chairs and decorations outside of his grandparents' cabin, where the ceremony took place.

Still, Burton said he was not allowed to have a bridal registry at most stores, and the couple cannot file a joint tax return. He wants the state to recognize their union. "I want a marriage license to pin up," he said.

"It's not fair. It's unequal because we're not able to be married in California," Burton said, pausing and then adding: "Yet."

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