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Couples fail to register in the District.

When Greg Case and Reggie Allen decided to register as domestic partners this July, they figured they would have some company. Domestic-partnership legislation has been on the District’s books for 10 years, but until this summer, no one was able to take advantage of it, thanks to congressional Republicans repeatedly blocking funding for the program. When the funds were finally approved, this past fiscal year, D.C. officials predicted a rush of registrations: 5,000 to 8,000 couples in the first 12 months. Mayor Anthony A. Williams even fretted that the legislation, which grants hospital visitation rights to unmarried couples (both same-sex and heterosexual) and makes health-care benefits available to the partners of District government employees, would drive up insurance premiums citywide.

But when Case and Allen went to the Department of Vital Records to register, they learned that they were only the 80th couple that had bothered to do so. The torrent of registrations that the city expected has not materialized. Not even close: As of Sept. 20, the domestic-partnership

program had enrolled only 96 couples.

“It surprised us a little,” Case says. “Our friends keep telling us that they are going to do it, but no one’s actually taking the time.”

So why have so few registered? For starters, there’s not much for potential domestic partners to get excited about. The legislation, drafted in 1992 as the Health Care Benefits Expansion Act, was crafted to pass muster on Capitol Hill, where conservative lawmakers saw domestic partnership as a gateway to gay marriage. The bill was aggressively marketed as a health-care measure, not a gay-rights one. And even the extension of health benefits comes with a catch: Domestic partners must pay full price for their health coverage, not the discounted premiums available to employees and their spouses.

The measure also offers the aforementioned visitation rights in all District health-care facilities and grants employees sick leave and bereavement leave to deal with partners’ illness and death. But in the decade that the legislation languished, many gay and unmarried heterosexual couples in the District have given each other medical power of attorney and taken advantage of domestic-partnership benefits extended by their companies—making the law’s benefits redundant.

“By 2002 standards, it’s simply inadequate,” says Bob Summersgill, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. “We should at least be paying for the partner’s insurance. There is nothing here that is even vaguely similar to Vermont-style civil unions or marriage. I’m not surprised that people aren’t rushing out to do it.”

Logan Circle residents Jason Ost and Andrew Pino have shied away from registering as domestic partners, though they are considering it. “My sense, in the gay community, is that you don’t really get a whole lot for doing it,” Ost says. “It seems to be more ceremonial than anything else.” Ost’s job offers domestic-partnership benefits not tied to the D.C. system, as does Pino’s.

According to the most recent census data, there are 3,678 gay and lesbian households in the District and 11,208 mixed-sex unmarried-partner households. The members of the latter, of course, have the option of marriage inside the District, while those of the former do not—domestic partnership is the closest same-sex couples can get to an official District recognition of their bond.

Registered partners get a certificate, with a display-worthy decorative blue border. “We wanted it to be a nice certificate so people could see it as something to represent their relationship,” says Ronald Lewis, deputy director of the D.C. Health Department. But the text is more bureaucratic than romantic: “[Registrants] meet the following requirements of 29 DCMR 8001.1: Both are at least 18 years of age….Neither is married or a member of another domestic partnership…”

“We might get the certificate as soon as we have a ceremony, but it just doesn’t feel right to do it yet,” says Ost. “It’s like getting a marriage license without a wedding.”

Carl Schmid, a gay Republican activist who helped pushed the domestic-partnership bill through Congress, says he’d prefer to see same-sex couples register regardless of their situation. “There is a symbolic importance here, as well as a practical one,” he says. “We never know what Congress is going to try to stop in the future.” Schmid points out that a fully functioning District domestic-partnership program could serve as a model for companies around the city, which could craft similar programs or tie their benefits to registration with the District. “This was a major, major victory,” says Schmid, “and hopefully people will take advantage of it.”

That step, however, requires some effort. “Folks want to support it,” Case says, “but they aren’t taking the day off work.” CP