COLUMBIA — The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Columbia is working to gather support to create a domestic partnership registry for couples 18 and older who are in cohabitating relationships.
Missouri banned same-sex marriage four years before the recent passage of California's ban, Proposition 8.Supporters of the registry say it's important to establish a list of simple rights and suggested benefits and to validate the relationships of LGBT individuals.
St. Louis, Kansas City and Jackson County already have domestic partnership registries. The St. Louis registry, passed in 1998, is "very limited in scope," said A.J. Bockelman, executive director of Missouri's statewide LGBT advocacy group PROMO. It only ensures the right to visit a partner in the hospital or in jail, according to the ordinance.
"The extra, added component that can be good across the board for registries is giving an employer some way to recognize there is some sort of a relationship between two people in order to have domestic partner benefits," Bockelman said. "Domestic partner registries by no means require a business entity to have (domestic partner) benefits."
The Columbia LGBT community and its supporters are lobbying Mayor Darwin Hindman and the rest of the City Council to garner support for a registry.
Many entities and businesses, including Boone Hospital Center in Columbia and all Fortune 500 companies, give partners health insurance benefits already. It's not mandatory, though, and Bockelman said the registries can frustrate people because of their limits.
"This is not marriage," Bockelman said. "This is nowhere near the rights and privileges of marriage."
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser appreciates the difference. She said she is "all for" visitation rights, such as at hospitals and prisons, for everyone but is uncertain she "approves of marriage in the traditional sense" for same-sex couples.
Some registries give rights to partners concerning the disposition of remains, notification of family members, use and access to public facilities and health-care decisions. The latter is most important to David Huddlestonsmith, 64, who worries about his daughter and partner if he were to die.
Huddlestonsmith recently underwent surgery at Truman Veterans Hospital. Even though his partner, Dave Collins, has no legal right to visit Huddlestonsmith, the hospital let him in. Huddlestonsmith also asked to give his partner power of attorney in case of an emergency, but there is no legal guarantee the hospital would honor that if Huddelstonsmith died or was incapacitated.
“We’re asking basically for some equality,” Huddlestonsmith said.
He's dealt with inequality his whole life, he said. He joined the Navy during the Vietnam War, serving as a doctor. Eventually, he had to leave the military because he had a partner and gained custody of his sons.
"If I had been found out to be gay, I would've been discharged on the spot," he said.
He decided not to take the risk because of his family, so he retired without full military benefits. Now, he receives health insurance through the military, but that doesn't extend to his partner or his daughter. As he grows older and his health declines, he said, his chance of getting a job is close to zero. He said because he has faced discrimination that has limited his work opportunities, he survives on his Social Security and raising dogs part time.
"I'm too old and too over-educated to get a job," he said, noting that it's not for lack of trying.
Unlike Huddlestonsmith, Travis Lauhoff, 20, moved to Columbia to escape discrimination. Lauhoff and his partner, Jason Barber, 24, are new to Columbia but are trying to become involved in the LGBT community here.
Lauhoff said he enjoys his job at Subway, where he hasn't felt any discrimination in regard to his sexual orientation. While he was living in Marceline, businesses refused to hire him, and people frequently threatened and taunted him, he said.
He and Barber both said they think Columbia is very accepting and want to register as domestic partners.
"I'd like to have all the same rights that straight people have," Lauhoff said. He paused, then continued. "That may never happen, but ..."
Showing his resignation in his hopes for equality, he said his opinion of Columbia wouldn't change if the council didn't approve the registry. He said he supports legalizing gay marriage, but right now he wants mostly to show people that same-sex relationships are valid.
"Most of my straight friends think (gay people) go from person to person," Lauhoff said. "You've got to give them positive reinforcement. You've got to show them people who have been together for a while and actually are happy."
Lauhoff said he thinks passing an ordinance creating the registry is possible in Columbia. The LGBT community already has contacted members of the council, and Huddlestonsmith approached Hindman about the idea. Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe said she saw a draft of the ordinance already.
"We talked about it, and I had a couple suggestions," Hoppe said. "There’s still some kinks to work out of it. So, I think they’re gonna come back and take a little while to sort of revise it and talk with some more people. I think if the ordinance is constructed well, it has the potential to serve a variety of people in a positive way. My guess is that it would have a good chance of passing."
She suggested changing the language to make points optional rather than mandatory.
"Rather than require the University Hospital to recognize partners, it establishes a means that makes it easier for them to do that if they want to do that," Hoppe said.
She said registries also could benefit people outside the LGBT community, such as elderly heterosexual couples.
"A point that they raised was that it would apply to senior citizens who don’t get married for a variety of reasons, and this will help them in terms of having a better process for visiting in the hospitals and a variety of other things," Hoppe said.
Many widowed senior citizens fall in love again but don't want to lose Social Security benefits from a deceased spouse, Bockelman said. Registering as a domestic partner would allow them to keep those benefits while having a new relationship recognized.
"We’re not just thinking of the gay folks and the LGBT community; we’re thinking of everybody because Columbia has a huge drawing of retired people," Huddlestonsmith said. "If we had a DPR, it would be more attractive to all people."
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said it is "no secret" that he's been supportive of the LGBT community. He encourages residents to share with the council any proposals they think would improve the city.
"At the outset, I think it sounds like a great idea," Skala said.
Skala hasn't seen a proposal for the registry or talked to other council members about it, but he said he feels "pretty comfortable in this community that there’s a lot of us that approach these big issues from a thorough point of view."
"There always is opposition to big topic, emotional issues, but I'm confident that most people aren’t threatened by the idea that other people have a different point of view," Skala said, characterizing the council as more progressive than in the past.
Huddlestonsmith, Lauhoff and Barber said they'd be happy with any benefits they could get but want to work toward even more.
"If people really pay attention to what is being asked for, which is the same human rights for LGBT people as other people, there shouldn’t be any real opposition," Huddlestonsmith said. "We are a progressive community, we’re a university town, and we really need to catch up in some of our policies to other cities."