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Local activists focused on bad legislation, not weddings 

The Massachusetts Supreme Court has ruled in favor of gay marriages, and mayors from San Francisco to New Paltz, New York are giving gays marriage licenses. But in North Carolina? Nothing. No licenses. No lawsuits. And yet, there are glimmers of gay and lesbian rights even here.

First, marriage. "I've gotten many, many calls from people who would like to go and request a marriage license," says Sharon Thompson, the Durham lawyer who heads N.C. GALA, the state's organization of Gay and Lesbian Attorneys. "Quite frankly, I've been discouraging them." Her reason: North Carolina has its own "Defense of Marriage Act," modeled on the federal statute, which bars same-sex unions. And if a same-sex couple challenged that law in the North Carolina courts, Thompson says, they'd surely lose.

In 1998, the state Supreme Court "went to extreme measures" to strip a gay father of custody rights toward his children, she says. "What is the point of bring litigation at this time and in this state just to make more bad law?"

Equality North Carolina, which advocates for gay and lesbian rights, agrees, according to co-director Ian Palmquist. "Unfortunately," Palmquist says, "we're going to be fighting negative legislation," not pushing for good bills.

This helps explain why the registers of deeds in Wake, Durham and Orange counties all report that they've had no requests--none--for marriage licenses from same-sex partners. The fact that, in North Carolina, it's the register of deeds who issues licenses also explains why even an openly gay mayor like Carrboro's Mike Nelson feels his hands are tied.

"It's very frustrating to be sitting on the sidelines and not be able to take part in the revolution that's taking place," Nelson says. "As much as I would love to be able to issue marriage licenses, it's not something that I could do, or any other mayor of North Carolina could do."

On the other hand, though, Nelson--and Carrboro--pioneered in creating a domestic partnership registry in 1994, which allowed the same-sex partners of town employees to be covered by Carrboro's health insurance and other fringe benefits plans. Since then, Chapel Hill, Durham, and Durham and Orange counties have followed suit.

They are the only ones in the state thus far.

But that's where the glimmers of change are visible. After some gay and lesbian city employees in Charlotte asked for the same treatment, the city manager appointed a citizens advisory committee, which last week handed her a stack of information and no recommendation what to do about it. But the issue is squarely on the table there.

In Raleigh, Mayor Charles Meeker says he doesn't know what the city's response would be if confronted with a similar request, because as far as he knows, there's never been one. But Meeker noted that the city amended its non-discrimination ordinance 10 years ago to add sexual orientation to its list. He thought that might lead to City Manager Russell Allen recommending partners' benefits to the City Council--if an employee asked.

"The policy of the City of Raleigh is and shall be to oppose any discrimination on account of" such things as sexual orientation, the ordinance reads. It goes on to "direct" the city manager to "establish such policies as will insure that there is no discrimination in any function or area of City government."

Whether the Council would approve such a recommendation is another question, but Meeker said he would. "I support it, as other good employers do," he said.

Similarly, Wake County Deputy Manager Joe Durham said that no county employee has ever sought coverage for a same-sex partner, though the subject has come up "in indirect discussions." If someone asks, Durham says, "we would have to look at it ... and can you make a business case for it?" Would it help recruit and retain the best possible workforce, in other words.

If so, Durham said, the administration would bring the issue to the county commissioners to decide.

Thompson says her group of lawyers stands ready to help any Raleigh or Wake employee who raises the issue. The state's DOMA has been cited to bar same-sex partners from state employee benefits, however, and Thompson says she's heard talk of a "super-DOMA bill" in the legislature that would try to make plans like Carrboro's illegal.

And, of course, conservatives in the General Assembly are circulating a resolution in favor of President Bush's anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment. That's why Thompson thinks gay and lesbian advocacy energies are best spent "educating legislators, starting with progressive legislators," so bad bills are stopped when the General Assembly convenes in May.

A lot of progressive legislators voted for the state DOMA eight years ago on the theory that it really didn't matter, given the federal law, Thompson recalls. But it's been an impediment ever since for gays seeking hospital visitation rights, adoption rights and a host of other things that hetero-marriage partners take for granted. "The bottom line," Thompson says, "is that there's a lot of energy here around trying to improve the situation in North Carolina. But a lawsuit on marriage right now isn't realistic."

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