Knowing they had few rights as a couple, Marty Finkle and Mike Plake hired a lawyer to draft four documents--including a will and a health care proxy--that are supposed to protect the other person if one gets sick or dies. Starting July 1, Finkle and Plake will need just one piece of paper to legally prove their relationship. That's when New Jersey's domestic-partnership law takes effect, giving gay couples the right to make medical decisions for each other and to file joint state tax returns.
But these are still not even close to the rights married couples get.
"I am thrilled that we have taken this step, but it's almost like having to go to separate water fountains," said Plake, 41, from the cozy two-story home the couple share. "I'll never be satisfied with just this."
While many of the state's gay couples support the state's domestic-partnership law, the debate over same-sex marriage looms as legal challenges continue in courtrooms across the country. For now, gay and lesbian couples are focusing on the state's domestic-partnership law, which they say will at least provide guidelines for how gay partners can live as a family unit. Civil rights groups have praised New Jersey's leaders as progressive and fair-minded in passing the law.
"It puts New Jersey as one of the leading states that recognize same-sex couples should be treated with the same equity compared to married couples," said Seth Kilbourn, national field director of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights organization.
For Veronica Hoff, a 49-year-old state worker, it means that if she is rushed to the hospital with brain swelling as she was seven years ago, her partner, Forest Kairos, won't be left in the dark. At the time doctors wouldn't even speak to Kairos, 32, or let her see Hoff. The new law will allow gay couples to visit each other in a hospital when family or spouses would typically be allowed in. "People are struggling and trying their best to deal with day-to-day issues that marriage laws were created in order to resolve," Hoff said. "You have a whole class of people that were left without any sort of real framework."
To obtain domestic-partner benefits, same-sex couples would have to show they live together and provide proof of joint financial or property ownership. They could also name their partner as a beneficiary in a will or retirement plan. Same-sex partnerships granted in other states will be honored by New Jersey. The law will also provide legal benefits for unmarried straight couples over age 62.
Couples will be able to register for partnership status at any municipal office in the state. To end a partnership, a divorcelike proceeding in superior court would be required.
Some of the excitement for the domestic-partnership law diminished for many gay couples when they saw local officials across the nation defy laws by marrying same-sex couples. From gay activists in Washington, D.C., to same-sex couples in small towns across New Jersey and the rest of the country, nearly all agree that gay marriage is the ultimate goal.
Gay activists say the fight for gay marriage will go on. "I can't tell you what it means both emotionally and legally for my partner and me to be recognized in the eyes of the state," said Steven Goldstein, the New Jersey campaign manager for gay rights group Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. "But those who thought the domestic-partnership law would be enough to assuage the gay and lesbian community are gravely mistaken."