California's recall-challenged governor, Gray Davis, signed the state's sweeping new domestic-partnership bill at a special ceremony Friday evening at the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center. The bill provides gay and lesbian couples most of the state-level rights and protections that married couples enjoy, bringing the state closely in line with Vermont with respect to such rights. "It's an incredibly historic event for our community," said Geoffrey Kors, executive director for Equality California, a gay rights group that endorsed the bill. "California is the only state that recognizes same-sex couples through the will of the people, not a court order [like Vermont]."
The signing of the bill comes just weeks after Davis signed another pro-gay measure that added gender identity to the list of classes covered by the state law prohibiting sex discrimination in housing and employment, extending such protections to transgendered people and individuals who do not conform to gender stereotypes. "The gay community here will now have the strongest rights in the country," Kors said. The new legislation will have an impact on the rest of the country, Kors said. "While Congress and President Bush are talking about how they can discriminate against our community, here in California we're working to protect everyone. What happens here does eventually filter its way through the country."
Indeed, gay rights groups across the nation hailed the bill's signing as a milestone. "Governor Davis and fair-minded leaders in the state senate and assembly have taken a grand leap toward supporting and protecting all California families," said HRC senior field organizer Dan Furmansky, who attended the bill-signing ceremony. "[This bill] will help ensure that same-sex couples will have many of the fundamental protections and benefits that most Californians take for granted."
The legislation, authored by out lesbian assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, provides registered domestic partners with protections such as child custody and child support requirements, the right to make funeral arrangements, community property, responsibility for each other's debt, and death benefits for surviving partners of police and firefighters. The new law will not take effect until January 1, 2005, to give the state's currently registered domestic partners enough time to consider the responsibilities that come with it--and lawmakers enough time to educate them. "This is a complicated law that people need to know more about, and starting today we're providing information so that couples all across the state can make decisions over the next 15 months that will make this law a reality in their lives," said Jennifer Pizer, a senior staff attorney in the Western regional office of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which played a key role in drafting the legislation. "We got involved in drafting this bill because so many of the clients we represent in court could have avoided terrible legal ordeals if protections like this were already in place. This law obviously won't solve everything, but it's a huge step forward."