Human Rights Code Stirs Up Debate
[EUGENE, OR] - There were more opinions than seats when the Eugene City Council went late into the night Monday to hear public sentiment for and against proposed human rights code revisions, including adoption of a domestic partnership registry for gay couples and equal-access guarantees for transsexual people.
"We're talking about a group of people small in number but large in need," said Jennifer Self, a lesbian who spoke in favor of both the registry and greater protection for transsexuals - a group she described as even more vulnerable than gays or lesbians.
Her father, who said he "could not be more proud" of his daughter and her partner, said the registry is simply a matter of officially affirming committed relationships that already exist.
"It will allow partners to stand up publicly and be recognized," Jim Self said.
Close to 60 people spoke at the 2 1/2 -hour public hearing, with all seats filled and listeners lining the back of the council chamber by the time councilors entered at 7:30 p.m.
The number of proponents seemed to be matched - at least - by opponents to the code amendments, and discussion was split fairly evenly between the domestic partnership registry and the issue of equal access for transsexuals.
Some on each side spoke from experience, some with heartfelt opinion and some with moral outrage.
"God himself is opposed to this wicked behavior, as stated in the Old and New Testaments," Chris Edwards said.
He told councilors that if the amendments are approved, they "will be responsible for bringing this city one step closer to God's judgment."
On the other hand, Tim Smith said adoption of a domestic partnership registry "could be seen as a barometer of quality of life in the community" and potentially be used as an economic development tool.
His partner, Ken Kullby, pointed out that the 2000 census counted 494 households in Eugene that are headed by same-sex couples. "Our domestic partnership is the most important part of our lives," he said.
If adopted when the council takes up the matter Oct. 28, the registry - an official but largely symbolic recognition of "spousal-equivalent" relationships - would be Oregon's third. Portland and Multnomah County began a joint registry two years ago, and Ashland started the state's first registry in October 1999.
Couples would not have to live in Eugene to sign its registry, and no person, business or agency would be required to extend benefits or privileges on the basis of a person's listing in the registry.
But the code revisions add "domestic registry status" to a list of characteristics protected by the city against housing discrimination, and guarantee that no one may be denied service at a restaurant or other "place of public accommodation" based on his or her inclusion in the registry.
Couples who sign such registries may potentially use the city's recognition of their status as a logical - though not legally binding - argument in favor of gaining a range of spousal benefits ranging from health insurance coverage to hospital visitation rights.
But critics said Monday that such a registry would devalue marriage and put the city's stamp of approval on a lifestyle they see as wrong.
Eugene lawyer Allen Gardner questioned whether the city has legal authority to enact a law recognizing such relationships, and self-described author and expert Billy Rojas said his book makes a case for homosexuality "as a mental illness."
Maureen Gabon suggested tongue-in-cheek that rather than adopt its own registry, the city simply take advantage of an existing one.
"Why don't you just send everyone up to Portland?" Gabon said. "I really object to having to redefine `family' for this."
But Ron Unger turned the tables - also looking for humor in a serious debate - by questioning opponents' distinction between marriage and other committed partnerships.
"I think it's kind of odd the opponents of this say they're pro-marriage," Unger said. "It's like saying I'm pro-Eugene, so I'm against incorporation of the city of Veneta."
The transsexual issue revolved primarily around bathroom access, with critics maintaining the amendment could cause hardships for businesses or that men could gain access to women's bathrooms by dressing as women.
Lori Buckwalter, a leader of a statewide support group for transsexual people, urged councilors to treat everyone with fairness.
"Look inside your heads and ask yourself if you want the same kind of thing I'm asking for," Buckwalter said.
Alan Brown stood before the council as a man but said his appearance was immaterial.
"If you were wondering what a trans-gendered person looks like, I'm one of them," Brown said. "This has been a hard, hard discussion - hard for all sides."
Councilors agreed before the public hearing that the proposal would be further amended to ensure that no one is forced to build new bathroom facilities to accommodate transsexuals.
Other proposed amendments to the human rights code drew no comment Monday. They include a revision that would enable people who believe they've been discriminated against to file private lawsuits based on the city law; add ethnicity to the city's qualifiers for protection against discrimination; and create a new committee to support volunteer case managers who help people report incidents of discrimination or harassment.