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Domestic partnership registry succeeding in Pinellas

One day last fall, Denise and Jan Lowe showed up at Jamerson Elementary in St. Petersburg to enroll Denise's grandsons.

The women were raising the boys after the unexpected death of Denise's daughter. The Lowes filled out required paperwork and presented a laminated card from the city of Gulfport that identified Jan as Denise's domestic partner.

"So there was never the question of 'Who are you?' when I show up at the school to talk to their teachers about them," said Jan, 53, who works in the financial services industry.

It has been about two years since Gulfport, Clearwater and St. Petersburg approved domestic partner registry programs and a little more than a year since Pinellas County established its registry. Couples who have registered, gay and straight, say they have seen real benefits from the rights they received.

Registered partners can visit each other in hospitals, make medical decisions for each other in a crisis, make funeral or burial decisions and, depending on their employers, share health insurance coverage. They also have the right to take part in the education of their partner's dependents.

In 2012, Gulfport became the first Pinellas city to approve a registry followed closely by St. Petersburg and Clearwater. But until the county's registry began in April 2013, the benefits were limited to those cities' borders.

By this week, 405 couples had registered with the Clerk of Court. First-time couples pay $50; couples who had already registered in one of the three Pinellas cities pay a reduced rate.

The county didn't have any specific projections for how many people would sign up, said Paul Valenti, director of the county's office of human rights. But the number surprised officials considering the county has a population of nearly 1 million, said Kimberly A. Swain, recording services manager.

"We thought there would be a lot more," Swain said. "It's been holding steady."

The registries are a boon to gay couples in a state that does not recognize gay marriage, but heterosexual couples also signed up, Swain said. The office does not keep statistics that break down the numbers.

Swain said many voiced excitement about becoming eligible for their partner's health insurance plan. "A lot of people jumped at that," she said.

April Leathers of Clearwater called that a potentially "huge" benefit that attracted her and her partner of five years, Aaron Lucas.

Both 42 and divorced, the couple didn't want to marry again but were among the first to sign up for the countywide registry. Leathers is an office manager for a plumbing company in Largo and Lucas is a managing partner for the St. Pete Taco Bus.

They both have children from previous marriages and list each other as "domestic partner" on emergency contact paperwork at schools. Six months after registering, Leathers found herself in the hospital, grateful for another of the registry's rights.

She was riding her scooter to work in November when a sport utility vehicle ran a red light and slammed into her. A nurse at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater asked who to contact and Leathers gave them Lucas' name.

"She asked if he was my husband and I said domestic partner," she said. "It meant everything because I was in a ridiculous amount of pain and that's who I wanted to be there."

The Lowes, who married in Connecticut in 2010, present their cards every time they encounter doctors and administrative staff. It allowed Jan to stay by Denise's side when she had both knees replaced at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg.

But the couple often find themselves in an educating role when they pull out the card.

"A majority of the time people go, 'What's that?' " said Denise, 51, a patient care technician. "We explain and they say, 'Maybe we should make a copy of that for your file.' "

In a way, the registry presents a bitter irony for gay couples. It's a progressive step forward but also a reminder of how far Florida still has to go.

Just eight Florida counties and 24 cities offer domestic registries, though they include some 9.8 million people, said Mallory Garner-Wells, public policy director for Equality Florida.

Hillsborough County rejected a registry about a week after Pinellas approved one last year, but Tampa has one.

"You have to consult your GPS to figure out what rights you might have," Garner-Wells said.

A bill to create a statewide registry program died this past legislative session when state Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Jacksonville, refused to take up the measure in the Health Policy Committee he chairs. Garner-Wells said the idea is gaining traction among rank-and-file members.

But the seven or so rights typically afforded by domestic partner registries are a far cry from the roughly 1,300 state and federal rights that come with marriage, Garner-Wells said. Among them are access to a partner's retirement, Social Security and veterans benefits. Equality Florida has filed a lawsuit to force Florida to recognize same-sex marriages. It's one of five cases pending in state or federal court.

Denise Lowe recently adopted her grandsons Jaylen, 10, and Jeremiah, 9. If Florida recognized the couple's marriage, Jan automatically would have become their second adoptive parent. Instead, the Lowes must spend thousands of dollars on a lengthy second adoption.

Lynne and Patti Kane-Wood married in Massachusetts in 2004.

Retired, they live in Gulfport now and were among the first to sign up for the county registry.

"At least there's a little more protection and a little less hassle," Lynne said, "but emotionally it feels like a step backward when you're married and you come to Florida and all of a sudden you're not."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

Domestic partnership registry succeeding in Pinellas 06/27/14 [Last modified: Friday, June 27, 2014 10:36am]
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