Gulfport, St. Petersburg to consider domestic partnership registries

Gulfport resident Jan Lowe pushes grandson Jeremiah Wimbley, 7, while her spouse, Denise Lowe, watches on Wednesday. The Lowes, who were married in Connecticut almost two years ago, approached their City Council members about a domestic registry.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Gulfport resident Jan Lowe pushes grandson Jeremiah Wimbley, 7, while her spouse, Denise Lowe, watches on Wednesday. The Lowes, who were married in Connecticut almost two years ago, approached their City Council members about a domestic registry.

With her same-sex relationship devoid of many of the rights guaranteed to married heterosexual couples, Jan Lowe says her worst nightmare is being shut out of her spouse's life at a time of serious illness.

Or, the reverse, "being medically and physically incapacitated and not being able to make a decision for myself and having someone else come in … and completely circumventing my wishes or those of my wife,'' said Lowe, 51, who is waiting for the results of a biopsy.

A bit of relief could be at hand for the Gulfport resident. The cities of Gulfport and St. Petersburg appear poised to follow in the footsteps of Tampa, which is expected to approve a domestic partnership registry for unmarried couples in a few days.

Gulfport City Council members are scheduled to discuss a similar ordinance during an April 19 workshop. The ordinance would give same-sex and unmarried heterosexual couples the right to make medical decisions for each other if either one had been incapacitated, and to be contacted as a family member if a partner were in an accident.

In St. Petersburg, City Council member Steve Kornell plans to propose a comparable ordinance next week.

"It's about doing the right thing for all of our citizens in St. Petersburg,'' he said.

"We're in a competitive situation,'' he said. "We are competing for citizens, for workers and good people and talented people to be in our community. It's good economically. It's the right thing to do."

Gulfport council members Jennifer Salmon and Barbara Banno are staunch supporters of a registry in their city. Salmon, who has conducted surveys of elderly residents in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, said domestic partnership issues have surfaced as a concern among Gulfport seniors.

A registry would have broad benefits and include "seniors who are straight,'' Salmon said.

"Gulfport is such a diverse community," Banno said. "From senior citizens to the gay and lesbian community, this city would truly benefit from this type of ordinance. I'm a lesbian myself. It's an ongoing fight to have the same rights as heterosexual couples, and I think that this ordinance is one more step in the right direction."

Mayor Mike Yakes wants to research the issue.

"I know that it involves a tremendous amount of recordkeeping,'' he said. "I need to find out about our resources in order to support it and to hear from our city attorney about any potential liabilities. I understand the intent, the spirit behind it."

A likely hurdle for Gulfport residents is that with no hospitals in the city, it's unclear how the registry would help domestic partners in their quest for the right to family hospital visits and to make medical decisions for each other.

It's for that reason that Banno would like to see the registry expanded.

"I have bigger visions for this type of ordinance, and that's to take it to the county,'' she said.

That would please Brian Winfield, a Palm Harbor resident and managing director of Equality Florida.

"I would certainly benefit,'' said Winfield, who has been with his partner for 25 years.

"I would hope that if he were in a traumatic car crash that I would be the person to be notified,'' he said. "With policies in place in Gulfport and St. Petersburg, Pinellas County commissioners would likely feel more supported in advancing a domestic partnership registry countywide."

In the bay area, Tampa will be the first to establish a registry. Orlando recently began offering a domestic partnership registry, and Orange County, in which the city is situated, is preparing to do so, Winfield said. Gulfport city attorney Andrew Salzman said he plans to use the Orlando and Tampa ordinances as guides.

The policy isn't on the agenda of Pinellas County cities such as Pinellas Park or Seminole. Dunedin, with a reputation for being welcoming to gays and being proud of its diversity, has also not considered the issue.

"The City Commission hasn't talked about it, and it's clearly not on their agenda. But I think that might be because we don't know about it,'' said Matthew Campbell, assistant to the city manager.

"Of all the cities … we're very gay-friendly."

Gregory Brady, president of the Downtown Dunedin Merchants Association and a prominent voice in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, noted that the city offers domestic partner benefits to city employees and has antidiscrimination legislation for lodging and service that includes transgender people.

"No domestic partner registry has been discussed yet, but I imagine it probably will be,'' he said.

Clearwater spokeswoman Joelle Castelli said the city has had "informal discussions … around domestic partner benefits for employees, but not about a registry."

In Gulfport, Lowe, who married Denise Wimmer in Connecticut almost two years ago, is grateful for the commitment her city seems ready to make.

"This I see as a small step toward a bigger picture,'' she said. "We live in Gulfport. We play in Gulfport. Our grandchildren are educated in Gulfport. Our life is in Gulfport, so for our city to recognize and say you matter is a big deal to us in terms of acceptance.

"I think that for a small town such as Gulfport to take this step is a challenge to the other communities, to the county of Pinellas and to the city of St. Pete."

Times staff writers Diane Steinle, Drew Harwell, Will Hobson, Lorri Helfand and Anne Lindberg contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

Gulfport, St. Petersburg to consider domestic partnership registries 03/28/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 29, 2012 1:18am]

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