COLUMBIA — Three weeks after the Columbia City Council voted unanimously for a domestic partnership registry, public response to the new arrangement hasn't been as energetic as the activism that created it.
Seven couples — all of them lesbian or gay — have registered as domestic partners, according to records from the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services.
Before the registry was created, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Columbia sought to gather wide support for a registry for cohabiting couples 18 and older, and the house was packed on the night council members passed the amendment to Chapter 12 of the city code.
Although the registry is open to couples of any sexual orientation, it is understood to be especially beneficial to Columbia’s LGBT community, which led the campaign for its creation within the context of equality.
Same-sex marriage is banned in Missouri.
One couple registered as domestic partners on April 7, the day after the registry was created, and the last registration was on April 17, the records show.
“I have no idea" why the response has been underwhelming, Steve Hollis, manager of the Office of Community Services, which runs the registry, said Friday.
Nothing specific has been done by his office to publicize the registry, he said. For a citizen-driven arrangement that enjoyed such solid support, Hollis said, “I am a little surprised.”
Each couple must pay $25 to register, but Hollis said the figure was not likely to be an issue among couples intending to register, as the statewide LGBT advocacy group PROMO, which drafted the original ordinance creating the registry, had suggested a $50 registration fee.
Couples intending to register must declare that they “share the same principal residence and are jointly responsible for the basic necessities of life.”
A.J. Bockelman, executive director of PROMO, said though it is “hard to say” how big or small the LGBT community is in Columbia, the number of registered domestic partners so far is “reasonable.”
“The number is not unlimited,” Bockelman said Saturday. “There’s a pretty high number of possibilities.”
In St. Louis, where such a registry has existed for 10 years, only 250 couples have registered as domestic partners, he said.
Dean Andersen, who was at the PROMO booth during the Earth Day fair, said though there is no systematic way to measure the LGBT community in Columbia, it's possible that several gay or lesbian couples were not yet ready to face the stigma that might come with making their names public.
“Most of the gay people still come from a place of being afraid,” Andersen said Sunday. Referring to registration, he said, “They fear that it can be used against them.”
Registering as a domestic partner brings certain benefits, such as family discounts to public facilities that would normally be given to married couples. Employers can use the registry as proof of relationship for benefit plans, according to the ordinance. In the case of hospital visitation, for example, facilities that recognize such relationships could grant access to domestic partners.
David Huddlestonsmith and partner David Collins were the second couple to register. They've already experienced the benefits. On Saturday night, one of the many bloodhound dogs that Huddlestonsmith and Collins raise accidentally injured Collins' face. They chose to go to Boone County Hospital, where the experience was completely different than past episodes at other hospitals.
"We have never been treated nicer. We both filled out paperwork. They knew we were a couple, and there was no hassle," Huddlestonsmith said.
Huddlestonsmith and Collins are active in the local LGBT community and are also members of PROMO and PFLAG. Huddlestonsmith said he worries about the low number of registered partners.
"I think a lot of it still centers on being outed because the registry is a public record," Huddlestonsmith said. "This is a very backwards state, unfortunately. The only way we make progress is to march forward and educate people."
Huddlestonsmith noted the registry gives domestic couples no additional rights. It simply validates relationships.
"The one benefit we do get is access to any city facilities such as the ARC. So it saves a few bucks here and there. That's why it was so unusual to see people against it," Huddlestonsmith said.
Eugene McKenzie, 37, who has been openly gay since he was 12, said Sunday that he is one of thousands of gay or lesbian Columbia residents who have yet to register as domestic partners. In his case, he said, “I have been busy. I work every day, six days a week."
McKenzie, a hairdresser, turned up for the Earth Day fair hand in hand with his live-in partner of four months, Dustin Berryhill, 18.
“It’s a large community," McKenzie said, his right hand clutching a rose, the other holding onto Berryhill. “I have been part of the community forever.”
McKenzie said there are at least 1,000 LGBT people in Columbia, where he’s lived all his life.
“There should be more people (registering as domestic partners),” he said.