by Wally Graves

These days, to get married, all you need is to be 18 or over and show up at the courthouse with $65 along with somebody of the opposite sex willing to marry you.

No more blood tests, no residency requirements or waiting period, no particular format for the ceremony. You can marry your cousin if you want. And you don't have to promise anything to anybody.

Our county's Human Rights Commission -- which was established in 1975 to monitor discrimination -- has for the past year been studying whether gays are discriminated against because they can't legally marry each other.

In May the commission presented its report to the Board of Supervisors. It recommended establishing a domestic partnership registry through which gay couples -- or others who live together but for some reason don't want to marry -- can declare their partnership, agree to care for one another, have the right to withdraw from the registry if the partnership breaks up, and in that case agree not to reapply for at least six months.

The commission pondered discrimination de jure, which is discrimination by law (as in the bad old days, "Californians are not allowed to marry Asians.") and de facto, which is discrimination by behavior ( "Asians are okay, but would you want your daughter to marry one?").

The commission concluded that de jure discrimination is suggested when marrieds can tap into tax breaks, insurance coverages and certain property and inheritance rights disallowed same-sex partners. Discrimination also appears in legal restrictions on partners' privileges in hospital visitation rights and funeral arrangements.

The commission noted that New York City in 1993, as well as several counties and cities in California, have established domestic partnership registries, and that some 350 private and public employers now extend spousal coverage to unmarried domestic partners.

The report concluded, "In an effort to protect and promote the human rights of all people in Humboldt County, we strongly recommend passage of a Domestic Partnership Ordinance."

Attached was a suggested ordinance.

The supervisors approved the report in concept 4-1 (Paul Kirk dissenting) and set July 22 for formal action.

At last -- for the bargain-basement price of $17 -- gay couples and other unmarrieds could emerge from their demi-world and become a legal entity enjoying the "dignity and respect" afforded those partners whose colored portraits you see in the Times-Standard celebrating engagements, marriages and anniversaries.

It seemed like a shoo-in.

That is, till people like John Fullerton of Eureka, chair of the Republican Central Committee, got wind of it. Fullerton thought it was a terrible idea -- so "unthinkable," he told me in his accountant's office in Eureka's Old Town, that over the past year while the commission was holding meetings in Eureka and Garberville and McKinleyville, Fullerton didn't attend the meetings because he thought the concept had no chance of becoming law, and, furthermore, he suspected the meetings were stacked, and why go to a stacked meeting just to get trashed?

To Fullerton, the supervisors' vote was a wake-up call.

Also awakening was Sonja Hauxwell, Blue Lake activist (anti-porn, anti-topless.) She was so concerned, she told me, that for help she phoned Betty Arras, publisher of a Sacramento newsletter called California Monitor of Education, and Arras in turn led Hauxwell to freshman state Sen. William 'Pete" Knight, R-Palmdale, a 32-year veteran of the Air Force and former state assemblyman.

Knight suggested Patricia "Pat" Shrum of San Jose who just last month has gone on leave from the Santa Clara County Taxpayers' Association to work nationwide against domestic partnerships.

Hauxwell with her friend Eileen Amos of Eureka and others rounded up about a hundred willing opponents to the ordinance, and in a one-day workshop held at the former Church of the Highlands in Eureka Shrum told them how she had spearheaded a successful referendum that reversed the Santa Clara Domestic Partnership Ordinance. To get a similar referendum on the local ballot "We needed to gather 250 signatures a day for 29 days," Hauxwell told me.

Her group became Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility and mustered spokesmen like Bruce Rupp, former county chief administrative officer, to spread the word that the Domestic Partnership Ordinance posed a potentially devastating fiscal threat to a county already in fiscal hell. Were unmarried domestic partners allowed county registry the floodgates of added benefits for county employees' partners could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Such a "slippery slope" should not be risked. And the group warned that if the ordinance passed, the county should brace itself for a costly special election, because the Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility were ready to damn the expense, force a referendum and let the voters decide.

The Human Rights Commission had been chaired by Jennifer Shoffner, a lay minister at Eureka's Sacred Heart Catholic Church. "The irony is," Shoffner told me at her modest house near Henderson Center in Eureka which she shares with her dog, Mr. Brooks, "I'm a fiscal conservative. The ordinance puts no fiscal demands on anybody."

But the Shrum attack took its toll.

On July 15 the Eureka City Council went on record 4-1 against domestic partnership without asking to see any data the Human Rights Commission had spent the past year gathering. This lapse appalled College of the Redwoods Instructor Kathleen Tillinghast, who teaches a course in critical thinking.

"What grade should I give the council?" she asked. "Does our council really determine public policy and civil rights on this level of debate?"

A week later the Fortuna City Council voted unanimously to support a resolution drafted by Mayor Phil Nyberg opposing the ordinance, having sought no information from the commission.

Then on July 22, the day gay rights activists had been waiting for, the county supervisors -- with the echo of Eureka and Fortuna in their ears and threats of recall on their message machines -- backed down. Supervisors Bonnie Neely and Roger Rodoni joined with Kirk in tabling the matter 3-2, though Rodoni called the fiscal argument "specious," noting that he didn't "believe people who say they want just to save the county money, and then threaten to plunge us into" a referendum.

Bruce Rupp, the former county CAO, took umbrage at Rodoni's remark.

"I don't like being called a liar," Rupp told me in his Eureka property management office over the Sherwin-Williams paint store.


After listening to both sides, I think Rodoni is right, though it should be pointed out that the fiscal impact argument was never presented as a clear and present danger, just something that might crop up "down the road a ways."

I also think that the commission erred in not stating under "Fiscal Impact" that a domestic partnership registry might some day cost the county money down the road in expanded benefits -- maybe as much as $50,000 a year, based on what's happened elsewhere. Is that too much to pay for what Supervisor Stan Dixon called a step toward "civil rights and decency"?

At the meeting a tall, blonde self-avowed Lesbian named Christine Mahurin took the mike. Softly Mahurin started testifying that she and her partner were devoted, and someday if she planned to have a baby she didn' t want the child to ... the child to ... to grow up ... deprived."

Her voice choked. She couldn't continue.

I sought Mahurin out, and by phone she told me she hadn't planned on choking, she was just trying to explain that she wanted her child, if she had one, to come from an identifiable family, but she'd attended last November's town meeting in McKinleyville where a man "accused all of us of going to hell, being child molesters, bestiality. And then I saw the same man standing in line ahead of me to talk to the supervisors, and another woman talked about not wanting anybody tampering with the family, or having homosexual teachers, or the mayor performing homosexual weddings, or homosexual members of the board, and another woman talked about pioneers in the light, and us in darkness, and it made me so choked up, making us look like swingers who couldn't commit.

"My partner and I have been together one and a half years and plan to stay together. Simply being gay makes you not equal. In some states it's legal to discriminate."

Among the Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, I asked Fullerton and Rupp and Hauxwell about homophobic bias. None wanted to be identified with it, though the commission reported a letter it got that said, "Nowhere else in nature is homosexuality found because the practice is not natural behavior."

And Steven Carnes of Arcata had argued at a meeting that redress for presumed discrimination needed no such sweeping ordinance which would "attack the sanctity of marriage and give an incentive to people not to get married. ... This is a time when we need to support a strong and stable family structure, not to destroy what is left of it."

Mahurin, on the other hand, sees the registry as strengthening her family structure.

Statistics gathered by researcher Marianne Pennekamp, adjunct professor of psychology at Humboldt State University, confirmed that Humboldt County's birth rate continues its fall as it has through the '90s. Divorces keep steady pace with marriages. Over half of our adults are now unmarried, and the number is rising.

Given these statistics, maybe we ought to dignify domestic partners by redefining marriage.

If we lived in a rational world we would reserve "marriage" for partners who have babies, and rewrite the state's Family Law Act accordingly, drafting a state Domestic Partners Law for everybody of all diversities who choose to live together for a long time but don't have kids.

Anybody who's raised a family knows the thrill hits not when you marry, but when you're walking your first child all night trying to soothe it quiet, and you feel the bills piling up, and you're down to one income, and somebody has to be on duty 24 hours a day.

That's when you're entitled to some de jure discrimination.

In your favor.

At the turn of the century, when my mother and her sister took their vows as faithful, middle-class American Christian wives, they wasted no time getting into the family way. Their first 16 years of marriage saw between them 16 children.

That's marriage.

Of their 16 offspring only a couple went seriously for procreation. The others had few or no kids, or they hung out with companions of their own sex.

That's domestic partnership.

In those days nobody paid much attention when Cousin Margaret went east to Skidmore College and found her lifelong companion in Miss Sidley, a fellow professor in home ec. They were "old maids" who happened to live together.

Our family's sex education book, Safe Counsel: Light on Dark Corners, by Professor B.G. Jeffries, M.D., Ph.D., honored "old maids" like Cousin Margaret. But Jeffries skirted the issue of old maids' sex life:

"We are constantly hearing of lovely maidens, charming wives, buxom widows, but almost never of attractive old maids," Jeffries observed. "It is stupid, as well as a heinous mistake, that women who remain single do so from necessity. Almost any woman can get a husband if she is so minded, as daily observation attests. When we see the multitudes of wives who have no visible signs of matrimonial recommendation, why should we think that old maids have been totally neglected? We may meet those who do not look inviting. But we meet any number of wives who are even less inviting."

Jeffries said nothing of unmarried men. In our family we called them "confirmed bachelors." We liked them, because by and large they dressed better and had more money. They weren't "homosexual." The word "homo" was reserved for an unsavory group unrelated to the family and associated with an Irish convict named Oscar Wilde, who couldn't possibly be the same Oscar Wilde that wrote "The Importance of Being Earnest," the hilarious play which all the high schools put on.

Every now and then some Boy Scout, or scoutmaster, would hang himself because of a "secret sin." Our family avoided that.

In those days, 50 years ago, the Encyclopedia Britannica didn't acknowledge that "Homosexuality" existed. It devoted 25,000 words to "Marriage," telling what anthropologists like Bronislaw Malinowski had found out about human sexual behavior among "savages" on the Trobriand Islands (wherever that was).

Twenty years later the Britannica decided that "Homosexuality" did exist, that it was a pathological aberration of emotional development and that there was evidence some people could be successfully treated for it. Under "Marriage" a few words were given to "counseling," suggesting that white Christians, as well as Trobriand Island savages, might be fair game for study.

About then the story of England's Lord Ashley and his son Sebastian was making the rounds. It seems that young Sebastian had unfortunately fallen in love with his college chum Harry. Sebastian sought his father's approval to marry Harry.

"Marry Harry!" Lord Ashley exploded. "Sebastian, you can't marry Harry. Harry's a Jew!"

There's one for the Human Rights Commission to tackle.


Wally Graves, who lives in King Salmon, writes from time to time for the Journal.

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