Partners in Limbo

Activists plan new strategy as out-of-state partnerships wait for recognition

by Will O'Bryan
Published on March 5, 2009, 12:00am | Comments

Nearly three weeks ago, Feb. 16, the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA) issued an ''action alert'' asking locals to urge Mayor Adrian Fenty to certify domestic partnerships from other jurisdictions. Tuesday, March 3, the group got a response from the mayor.

''I have asked city officials to thoroughly review all aspects on the issue, including whether or not to certify same-sex relationships from other states,'' the Fenty e-mail reads, in part. ''At this time, no determinations have been made on the issue.''

As far as Rick Rosendall, GLAA's vice president for political affairs, is concerned, the issue should have been resolved long ago. He points to the Omnibus Domestic Partnership Equality Amendment Act of 2008 , which became law in September. This sweeping measure that updates the D.C. Code to reflect the reality of domestic partnerships on a great number of fronts, includes language that reads: ''Relationships established in accordance with the laws of other jurisdictions that are substantially similar to domestic partnerships established by this chapter, as certified by the Mayor, shall be recognized as domestic partnerships in the District.''

While that might seem straightforward, Mayor Fenty has yet to certify such relationships. Instead, the aforementioned review has fallen to D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles. Though Nickles did not respond to Metro Weekly by deadline, he did in late February tell the Washington Blade that several states' same-sex partnerships laws would not likely be recognized in the District, though he has yet to complete his review.

Bob Summersgill, a former member of GLAA, a Capital Pride Hero, and someone who has been going head-to-head with D.C.'s legislative process since 1992 when he began work to reform the city's sodomy law, helped draft the language for this Omnibus bill. The language requiring mayoral certification was, he explains, prudent verbiage recognizing the great variation among same-sex partnership laws around the country and the world.

''It was deliberately kept vague,'' says Summersgill. ''It relied, unfortunately, that the mayor would act to certify those other laws in good faith. He's simply completely ignored us. And it looks like his attorney general, Peter Nickles, instead of giving the mayor broad leeway, wants to define it in the most narrow, legalistic way. That's certainly not the intention the Council had.''

Of particular puzzlement, adds Rosendall, is Fenty's support for such recognition when he ran for mayor in 2006. On his GLAA candidate-questionnaire at the time, Fenty wrote: ''I am ... supportive of recognizing the rights and responsibilities given to these relationships in other states when those couples move to the District of Columbia. This will make DC a more attractive place to move to and one of our goals is to increase our population and our tax base.''

In his answer, Fenty continued by adding a caution that he would not take any actions to provoke Congress. Still, the Omnibus bill has already cleared congressional oversight. The mayor's office did not respond to a request for comment by Metro Weekly deadline.

As Nickles continues his review, Summersgill says the law gives Fenty all the authority he needs to recognize other jurisdictions' same-sex partnerships.

''There would be nothing illegal about saying that Hawaii, for instance, qualifies,'' Summersgill explains. ''This is all his discretion. [Recognizing Hawaiian partnerships] would be a little much, but certainly Vermont is a leader on this and we could at least recognize theirs as they recognize ours. It's not a minor point that D.C. domestic partnerships are recognized under Vermont's civil-union law. The Council gave him all the permission he needs.''

And it's to the Council that the GLAA and Summersgill are turning, working to remove the mayoral-certification requirement.

''Given that Nickles seems to be looking for reasons to protect as few couples as possible, Bob [Summersgill] and I have spoken about putting a correction in the law to take the mayor out of the loop,'' says Rosendall. ''We're not willing to accept these narrow interpretations. Since Fenty is likely to go along with Nickles, we can't rely on the mayor, so the Council has to fix it. This is basically a clean-up fix.''

Rick Rosendall's ''Center Field'' commentary runs regularly in Metro Weekly.