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Nearly a year after domestic partnerships became legal in Nevada, the GLBT community is learning to wield its newfound clout

This affords us benefits we never had before says Candice Nichols, right, with her partner, Suzanne Miele.

When Senate Bill 283 passed last year, it provoked little more than a shrug from many Nevadans. Now, a year into the life of the Domestic Partnership Act - with interest groups planning their strategies for the 2011 Legislature - its far-reaching effects on individuals and institutions are coming into focus. Among those effects: Committed relationships on hold that can finally blossom into families, a galvanized GLBT community relishing newfound political clout, and a can-do attitude toward civil rights hurdles to come.

You might think that anything goes, couples-wise, in a place where drive-through nuptials performed on practical strangers by impersonators of dead celebrities are de rigueur. Not so. In 2002, Nevada voters approved a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as being only between a man and a woman.

It's against this backdrop that, on Oct. 1, 2009, the Domestic Partnership Act encompassing both opposite- and same-sex couples became law. That's not all: The law is frequently described as one of the most progressive of its kind in the nation.

"To me, it shows how far Nevada has come in 15 years," says Secretary of State Ross Miller, pointing back to the battle over the anti-sodomy law that his father, former Nevada Governor Bob Miller, signed the repeal for back in the '90s. "I think this means we're moving forward, in terms of recognizing individuals' right to live in a loving, legal relationship."

How far Nevada has come can be measured, in this case, in terms of current buy-in. More than 2,100 couples (4,050 people) have officially declared themselves domestic partners so far (about 10 months into the law, at press time). Miller says he's surprised by the high number, which his research had indicated would be lower.

This measure of progress matters most to same-sex couples. Lots of heterosexuals have registered as domestic partners, but the law grants gay and lesbian men and women new acknowledgement of their relationships and rights. For the greater community, SB 283 has had a galvanizing effect, uniting several organizations behind a common cause and putting a major political victory under their belt. A year after the passage of this historic law, members of the GLBT community and advocates of their rights say it's changed their lives and inspired them to tackle other obstacles to full equality, from limits on insurance coverage to workplace discrimination.

Love and... partnership

You remember the order, from the first-grade rhyme: 1. love, 2. marriage, 3. baby in a baby carriage. But if there's no marriage option to sanction your parenthood, are you stuck with just kissing in a tree? That question (or some version of it) was vexing Kimi Bateman and Kara Kleinhenz, who, like many GLBT couples, had put certain dreams on hold - until they heard about domestic partnership. One of those dreams: having a baby.

"We want to start a family, and we want to make sure we both have parental rights, and that's supported under this law," Kleinhenz said. "I think if you are committed and you are in love and you do want to be together forever, you should take advantage of the institutions that are given you."

The couple registered as domestic partners in July. They honeymooned in Hawaii in August. Upon their return, they started the process to have their first child via artificial insemination or, if that doesn't work, in vitro fertilization. If all goes as planned, Bateman will carry their first baby, Kleinhenz their second, and both children will have the same donor father.

The breadth of SB 283 accommodates such creative redefinitions of the contemporary American family - by giving domestic partners the same rights, protections and benefits as traditional spouses. "This affords us benefits we never had before, in property ownership, hospital visitation, health insurance, end-of-life decisions. & It makes a difference," says Candice Nichols, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada.

After SB 283 passed, the Center held a dozen educational workshops, where attorneys, financial advisers, end-of-life counselors and other experts covered the risks and rewards of entering a civil contract with a person who might someday execute your will or decide whether to keep your respirator going.

Kunin & Carman attorney James M. Davis, who helped organize the workshops and led legal discussions, said most questions from the 20 or so people at each workshop were about finances and debt, and children and parenting rights.

"I believe we may have scared a few couples away from domestic partnership because of the community property rights and obligations that come with the partnership," Davis said.

State Sen. David Parks, the Democrat from Las Vegas who sponsored SB 283, said he personally knew a man who didn't enter into a domestic partnership with his girlfriend in order to avoid "imposing on her the liabilities that he would normally sustain by himself."

But one person's responsibility is another's peace of mind - and a new way to conceptualize a relationship.

"Once the law took effect, there was that moment of realization: "Wow, that's my spouse,'" says Michael Ginsburg, Southern Nevada director for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, smiling across a cluttered office at his partner of 18 years, Tod Story. "That means something. If something does happen, if there's an accident, and we have to go to the hospital, or any of those kinds of situations, you can simply say, 'That's my spouse,' and you don't have to explain who you are."

Story, who is chair of the Community and Public Affairs Committee for the Gay & Lesbian Community Center, meets his partner's smile with a serious nod, adding, "Even though our families are both very supportive, and we're open, to think that someone else could make those decisions for you after you've spent your life with someone. & You can just imagine how awful it would be."

Ginsburg and Story were among the couples invited by the Secretary of State to receive their domestic partner certificates at special ceremonies in Carson City and Las Vegas the day the law took effect.

"The most touching story, for me, was by Larry Davis and Lee Cagley, the first couple to receive their certificate," says Miller. "Lee was the interior designer for the governor's mansion when my family lived there, so I knew him. When they got their certificate here in the capitol, Lee explained how he was a longtime Nevada resident and had experienced some discrimination firsthand. Getting the certificate, the recognition - and everything it took to get to that point - meant so much to him that while he was talking, he broke down in tears."

Coming together, right now

Davis and others aren't brought to tears only by the personal significance of finally being able to declare their love for their partners openly and legally. For hundreds of people, the tears followed weeks, months, even years, of manning phone banks, pressing the flesh, organizing rallies and other activism.

That was the case for Josh Miller and his decade-long partner, Steve Amend. The pair joined Ginsburg, Story and other couples in the Day One domestic partnership ceremony in Las Vegas, and their first child, son Caden, just turned 8 months old.

Once the law took effect, there was that moment of realization: Wow, thats my spouse, says Michael Ginsburg, right, with his partner Tod Story.Josh Miller is stoic when you ask him the meaning of domestic partnership to his family, but mention the political process, and you'll really get him going.

"This was an opportunity for various individuals and leaders and groups in Nevada to work on something collectively," he says. "In the past, there have been fractures in our community on certain topics, but this was something where we all pulled together to achieve success. We gained the attention of all Nevadans. This isn't a partisan issue; it's about equal rights."

Ginsburg says PLAN tried to create "the broadest possible coalition," including the Center, the Human Rights Campaign and the ACLU, as well as elected officials, university presidents, even public administrators, "the ones who have the responsibility of going in, in the event of a death, and administering someone's estate."

By the time votes were taking place, PLAN was reaching out to everyone. Having won on their key issues, even "attorneys and lobbyists for the mining industry were helping us on this," Ginsburg says. "A lot of people thought we wouldn't get as far as we did. They thought we'd never find three more Republicans in the Senate [to approve the bill]. Mining, gaming, rental cars, everyone just lobbied the hell out of them."

Big corporate backing is one of the strengths of the newfound coalition's cause, says Josh Miller.

"I think they carried a lot of weight," he says, ticking off a list of SB 283 supporters: Harrah's Entertainment, MGM Mirage, Wynn Resorts, R&R Partners and others.

What's the upside for them? "It's good for business," Miller says. "They market to the LGBT community. They have very strong diversity efforts within their organizations, which is both for HR and PR reasons."

Unlike some coalitions, this one hung around after the victory, too. Miller says members meet monthly to discuss priorities for upcoming legislative sessions. Lee Rowland, northern coordinator for ACLU of Nevada adds, "This was not just a victory for domestic partnership. It was also a victory for the GLBT community's ability to organize." So, what will the coalition focus on next? Gay marriage?

Maybe. Nichols says U.S. Senator Harry Reid recently held a conference call with GLBT leaders in his Nevada constituency. "We were able to ask questions, so I brought up [the federal Defense of Marriage Act]," Nichols says. "There are a lot of people on both sides of the aisle who want to see it repealed. So, I asked when we might see that & He said it was coming up. I asked how soon, and he said he thought it would come up in the next congressional session. We're looking for that, because the repeal really does have to happen on a federal level."

That's because getting Nevada's definition of marriage taken out of the state constitution would be expensive and slow. Proponents would have to collect more than 90,000 signatures for a ballot initiative that would then have to pass by popular vote - twice in a row.

"Let's say we did it in 2008 and it passed, then it passed again in 2010," says Ginsburg. "In terms of practical benefit in people's everyday lives, concrete legal gain, it wouldn't change anything & We could put all our time and resources into an incredibly difficult ballot initiative, or we can put our time and resources into other changes that will immediately impact the lives of Nevadans."

These changes include strengthening public accommodations and discrimination laws to include gender and expanding domestic partnership benefits, such as health insurance, to state employees (an element that was carved out of SB 283 as part of a compromise).

"There's no question that the focus this year has to be on inclusive transgender protection, including both someone's sex and their gender identification, neither of which are currently covered under state law," Rowland says.

She illustrates with the example of "an effeminate male who's completely straight." Such a person now could legally be kicked out of a casino or restaurant based on discomfort with or ambiguity about his gender, Rowland explains, "because gender and gender identity are not covered by current public accommodation laws."

Parks says he's already working with "a loose collection of individuals statewide" in preparation for the next legislative session on employment nondiscrimination, hate crimes and also harassment and intimidation in schools. Much can happen between now and the next Legislature. But for now, those pushing for equal rights in the GLBT community have the momentum.

Rowland says, "We now have a recent victory for gay marriage in the federal courts, with Prop 8. We at the ACLU know that to give this the best possible chance for success as it moves through its appeals, we need to demonstrate that America is ready for same-sex relationships to have equal protections and dignity under the law. We at the ACLU will keep fighting for that."

At the same time, politicians on both sides of the aisle are courting the GLBT vote - as demonstrated in a heated July debate in Las Vegas between State Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford and Mark Ciavola, president of Right Pride, which represents gay Republicans. Candidates in 2010 elections appear unlikely to do anything that could alienate a group of voters that's flexing its newfound muscle.

Meanwhile, same-sex couples continue to line up for Nevada's domestic partnership, making a very public statement about something ultimately quite personal.

"I hope this energizes people to want to believe in commitment again. I think it would be great if this could inspire people," Kara Kleinhenz says. Kimi Bateman adds, "Yeah, the world and everyone seeing you as a couple - it makes you seem as capable of love as anybody else."


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