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Pensacola’s Domestic Partnership Registry Approved
By Jessica Forbes

After two city council meetings packed with supporters, a proposed Domestic Partnership Registry (DPR) for the city of Pensacola passed a final vote on Dec. 12. With that vote, Pensacola joins North Port as the most recent Florida municipalities to establish DPRs, joining at least 14 other cities and counties in the state.

A DPR is a legal mechanism that provides certain rights to two unmarried cohabitating people, regardless of gender. While DPRs provide some rights that convey with marriage—health care and correctional facility visitation, participation in a dependent’s education, notification in case of an emergency, and funeral/burial decisions among others—a domestic partnership is not intended to equate to marriage.

City Councilman Larry B. Johnson (District 4) sponsored the ordinance, which was the product of collaboration with Sara Latshaw, Northwest Florida Regional Director of the ACLU of Florida. “Sara and I sat down and talked about it several months ago,” Johnson told the IN the day after the ordinance passed the council in an 8-1 vote. “We realized we felt the same way about this.”

Johnson said the concept of a DPR had been on his mind after hearing stories from constituents regarding their inabilities to make health care decisions for their partners. A friend who was unable to speak for his longtime girlfriend while she was hospitalized was the first such story. An elderly, straight couple that lives together in Johnson’s district contacted him, worried about future health care decisions. The female partner receives her late husband’s pension from the United States Postal Service, which she would lose if she married her current partner, so the couple remains unmarried.

“I also heard stories from same sex couples of cases where they couldn’t visit their partner in the hospital because they weren’t a family member. I had a family member who was gay and I am very sensitive to this issue—it touched me,” said Johnson. “I thought it was the right thing to do as I heard more of these stories.”

“I was very proud to sponsor this,” said Johnson, but reiterated his thanks to Latshaw for the research and community organization efforts she undertook. “I’ve been on city council for five years and I have only once seen that many people in the city council chambers,” he said. “I cannot give her enough credit.”

During the ordinance’s first reading at the Nov. 14 regular council meeting, nearly 20 members of the public ranging from clergy, attorneys, local business leaders, and both LGBT and heterosexual citizens whose lives the registry would affect addressed the council, asking for their affirmative vote.

These testimonies were enough to sway one council member to change his stance. “I already had tremendous respect for Councilman Wingate, but I gained even more,” Johnson stated. Wingate’s comments at the meeting garnered much applause when he explained, “I always used religion as the basis, but I feel this was beautiful tonight—I’ve been convinced that it’s something that would benefit the people of the community and I’m willing to support it.”

The stories were not enough to sway all council members, however. At the Dec. 12 meeting, Jewel Cannada-Wynn wore red, the color supporters of the ordinance wore to the meetings, but she again cast the lone opposing vote. “For me as an educator, I feel that this undermines the very fiber of our culture and that is marriage and the family unit. You may not agree with me, but I’ve thought about this long and hard,” she explained. “To me, I must be consistent with what I believe and what I teach.”

Many supporters of the ordinance see it not as a detriment to the ideal of family, but a way to provide greater protections for those already living as families.

Karen Kilpatrick, the president of the Panhandle Chapter of the ACLU of Florida, said she decided to speak before the council to demonstrate the need for the DPR and the range of people it would benefit. “I just felt like it was the right thing to do to let people in the community know that it’s not just about a certain group of people, it’s about all of us—gay, straight, whoever,” Kilpatrick said. “There are a lot of heterosexual couples out there living together, taking care of kids, and for one reason or another, they’re not legally married.”

Kilpatrick herself will benefit from the DPR, having been in a relationship with partner Henry McMahon for over 25 years. “Henry and I both had been married previously and we chose not to go down that path; it wasn’t for us,” Kilpatrick said. While their relationship hasn’t been challenged yet, the couple knows it’s likely in their future.  “I know that that will be coming because of our ages and medical conditions. Henry is a service-connected veteran, disabled,” Kilpatrick said of their situation. “That [DPR] will help us with these medical situations when they start arising.”

Johnson said that apart from a couple of negative calls and emails, the response so far has been “overwhelmingly positive.” The council member hopes that positivity will encourage the establishment of more DPRs in the area, as Pensacola’s DPR applies only within the city limits or within cities and counties that also have DPRs in place.

To provide the benefits to a larger group of people, Johnson stated he would like to see a similar measure passed for Escambia County. “I would very much appreciate the Escambia County Commission taking this up,” he stated. “I would support them and help them, and I know Sara Latshaw would.”

Until then, the city limits will be the only place in the Panhandle aside from Leon County (Tallahassee) where a domestic partnership is recognized. Cohabitating individuals 18 years and older who are not related by blood can file an affidavit of domestic partnership with the City Clerk, pay required fees, and receive a certificate and laminated card as documentation of the partnership; a domestic partnership can be terminated by filing an affidavit with the Clerk, as well.

The City Clerk has 90 days to get the paperwork and process ready, and expects to open the DPR by March 2014.

“I think that we’ve told the world that we are an accepting community, that we have compassion, that we are progressive; and all those things, I think, are very positive for Pensacola,” said Johnson.