The nation's first domestic-partner registry mandated by voters, giving gay and straight unmarried couples the right to officially register as partners, opened for business Monday in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Five couples were in line at 9 a.m., when the Cleveland suburb began its registration program, approved by the voters in November. "There we go," said Larry Shaw, parks and recreation commissioner, as he notarized the first registration for Nancy Thrams, 59, and Fran Twomey, 47.
There were balloons and television cameras to capture the moment and cheers from friends of the couple. "It just feels great. It feels equalizing," Twomey said. Thrams and Twomey had been active in supporting the registry, which Thrams said had important symbolic value. "The registry doesn't give us any rights, but what's important to me is recognition," Thrams said. "It gives us validation."
The recognition is not binding on courts, governments, or private companies. But supporters hope it will make it easier for couples to share employment benefits, inherit property, or get hospital visiting rights. At the same time, opponents fear it could one day undermine traditional marriage.
In the first hour after the registry opened, 17 couples registered, including one unmarried heterosexual couple. The rest were about evenly split between male and female couples, and all but one or two were from Cleveland Heights, said Suzanna Niermann O'Neil, director of community services for the city. An estimated 100 unmarried couples were expected to show up at City Hall by the end of the day, Mayor Ed Kelley said earlier.
Dawn Fasick, 37, and Deborah Thompson, 45, showed up at City Hall at 11:30 p.m. Sunday and spent the night in their heated Ford Explorer sharing coffee so that they could be among the first in line. "I wanted to be able to express my love to my girlfriend and express my joy to everyone who is going to be here," said Fasick. The registration is open to all unmarried couples. It costs $50 for residents and $65 for nonresidents. Eventually the city will offer online and mail registration, the mayor said.
Domestic-partnership registries have been created by city councils and state legislatures elsewhere. The Vermont legislature passed the nation's first law establishing civil unions for same-sex couples, and California created a statewide registry for same-sex couples and gave them some of the legal standing of married spouses. The Cleveland Heights initiative--passed with 55% of the vote in the suburb of 50,000--was the first through a ballot issue, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Opponents of the measure, including the Cleveland Heights Family First Initiative, say it's wrong for a city to legitimize a lifestyle many disagree with. A group statement said the registry attempts to redefine marriage and that it "will have very serious negative effects on our society as a whole."
Located about 10 miles southeast of Cleveland, Cleveland Heights is home to middle- and upper-class professionals and also boasts a racially diverse population, artsy cafes, family-owned restaurants, and historic homes. The city will file copies of applications and mail certificates. The couples will take home notarized originals. To cancel the registration, couples must send a certified letter to the city. The opening of the Cleveland Heights registry comes less than a week after the Ohio legislature passed one of the country's most far-reaching bans on gay marriage. The bill exempts municipalities, however, so it shouldn't have an effect on the registry.