Partnership Comes to New Jersey

In Maplewood, and towns across the Garden State, couples get legal recognition

On Saturday, July 10, in Memorial Park in Maplewood, New Jersey’s, just down the hill from the commuter train station, there were tents and flags, a stage festooned with ribbons, and a rainbow of multicolored balloons that for increasing numbers of Americans immediately signal gay and lesbian pride.

Beyond the park, at the Maplewood Municipal Building, some 500 same-sex couples, almost evenly split between lesbians and gay men, lined up to register for statewide domestic partnership status. It was the day on which the Domestic Partnership Act, approved by a slim margin in the New Jersey Legislature and signed into law by Gov. James McGreevey on January 12, took effect.

New Jersey is the fifth state to pass domestic partnership legislation.

The town of Maplewood, along with Union Township, Trenton, South Orange, Asbury Park, and Ewing Township, opened the doors of their town halls, even though it was a Saturday, to register gay and lesbian couples.

“This town is noted throughout the metropolitan area for its openness, diversity, and it’s a family town,” said Maplewood Mayor Fred Profeta. “Here, we really integrated gay and lesbian life into the life of the city

While many in gay and lesbian communities throughout New Jersey welcomed the legislation, many say it should not be treated as a substitute for marriage.

Denise May, 42, a government employee, and Lynn Fryer, 42, a nurse practitioner, of Highland Park, were there to register, accompanied by their two-year-old twins.

“This is a small ripple in the pond,” said May. “I’d like to be more excited about it than I am.”

“It’s far short of what we want,” she added.

Under the new law, same-sex couples who qualify for domestic partnership gain hospital visitation rights and authority to make legal and health-related decisions for incapacitated partners, among a handful of other rights. Heterosexual couples over the age of 62 are also eligible to register as domestic partners, although early reports show that few seniors are actually pursuing this possibility—surely not in the numbers seen at the Maplewood Municipal Building last Saturday, where an orderly crowd of hundreds gathered.

“It was the most beautiful mob scene, and the most beautiful fire hazard,” said Steven Goldstein, 42, the former campaign manager for Lambda Legal’s marriage and domestic partnership effort in New Jersey who chairs a new statewide political action group, Garden State Equality. Goldstein and his partner, Daniel Gross, 34, a senior vice president at General Electric, moved from Brooklyn to Teaneck, New Jersey, a month ago in order to benefit from the new legislation.

Valerie Pawlowski, 40, a personal trainer, and Shari Sperandio, 42, supervisor for a public utility, traveled from Somerset County to Maplewood for the public celebration on the advice of friends.

“We planned to go to our own town hall and file,” said Pawlowski. “But then all the hoopla here attracted us.”

Greg Costa, 44, owner of a gay-friendly travel club, and Joe Moesch, 41, a kitchen designer, stood in a circle of their close friends, comprised of three gay couples who were registering and two supporters.

“I’m satisfied that we’ve come as far as we have,” said Costa, who, along with his partner, is a lifelong resident of the state. “We can always go further,” he added, noting that he believed same-sex marriage was still a necessity.

The registration of couples was preceded by a ceremony in which organizers and city officials delivered speeches.

Steve Mershon, a spokesperson for Rainbow Families of Maplewood-South Orange, which helped organize the event, said the numbers “overwhelmed our expectations.” He said that there were six volunteers from his organization working with the Maplewood municipal registrars to help in non-bureaucratic capacities, including the drawing up and printing of the certificates of domestic partnership which each couple received as a complimentary gesture.

At 11:00 a.m., couples were asked to pick a number out of a holder.

June Dowell-Burton, 35, a full-time student, and her partner, Jana Burton-Dowell, 24, a teacher and coach, said they were lucky in the draw.

“They gave out 400-plus numbers and then stopped giving out numbers,” said Burton-Dowell. “They had to send people away without anything. We’re happy because our number was low, our number was 87.”

Maplewood Town Hall had initially planned to stay open until 4 p.m., but extended it by an hour.

Later in the day, some couples went to neighboring Union to try to get registered there. Despite the fact that some got turned away from both locations due to sheer numbers, spirits remained high.

Laura Tramontin, 35, and Monica Tramontin, 41, both forensic scientists from Metuchin and together for seven years, said they were registering to be domestic partners primarily because of rights they were seeking related to child care and parenting. They want to be assured that Monica will qualify for maternity leave from her job when Laura becomes pregnant again. The couple already has a 3-year-old daughter.

John Davis, an arts administrator, and Robert Shaffron, a creative director, of Weehawken, have been together for 17 years, and residents of New Jersey since 1995.

“So that our children know that we’re honest people,” said Shaffron when asked why they were preparing to register.

Doug Flores, 39, chief operating officer of a non-profit organization, with his partner, Greg Perez, 44, an Episcopal priest who works for an HIV/AIDS social service agency, of Jersey City, have been together for six years.

“We have a house in Texas. We own cars together. Who knows what can happen?” said Perez, recognizing that the domestic partnership is only applicable in-state. Even within New Jersey, according to the law’s stipulations, property purchased by one partner is not automatically considered joint property.

“This would only add to the rights we could exercise,” said Perez.

They, like many others, are not fully satisfied with the limited rights and privileges that the domestic partnership law affords them, but, said Flores, “If someone opens up the gate that much, and you don’t step in, it closes.”

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