Lee Ryan and Robin Leonard have lived together for eight years. Last July they went to city hall in San Francisco and made it legal. While a friend took photographs, Ryan hummed wedding marches in Leonard's ear. It was, says Leonard, 31, a lawyer and editor at Nolo Press, "a wonderful emotional experience." At work, colleagues hung up streamers and put a "Just Domesticated" sign over the door. Leonard and Ryan, a 33-year-old law librarian, are lesbians, and the license they picked up at city hall certifies them as "domestic partners." Christine Farren, 37, and David Ferland, 33, live in Waterbury, Vt. The town doesn't recognize domestic partnerships, but Ben and Jerry's Homemade, Inc., where Farren is an administrative assistant, does. Since 1989, the ice-cream company has offered unmarried couples the same benefits, including health insurance, that married employees receive. Ferland, manager of a small hotel with no group-health plan, is now covered through Farren. Without the policy, he says, "if I broke my leg, I'd be financially devastated. THis could be a life-saver for me, literally."
Domestic partnership was unheard of a decade ago. In the last few years, a handful of corporations and a dozen local governments, including Seattle and Tacoma Park, Md., have set up DP plans. Despite significant opposition, largely from conservatives and religious groups, they may soon be commonplace. The number of Americans living together outside marriage has increased more than 400 percent since 1970. Almost 3 million of the country's 93 million households now consist of unmarried couples. At the same time, the number of "traditional" families -- two married parents with children -- has declined steadily, if not dramatically. With changing sexual mores, soaring numbers of single parents and an economy driving more people to share households, the definition of "family" is increasingly fuzzy. "The 'Leave It to Beaver' family is not the norm," says Steve Culver, editor and publisher of The Michigan Tribune, a gay/lesbian newspaper. "We'll be seeing a lot more different types of families in the next 10 years."
Though domestic partnership is defined in a number of ways, at present it is almost exclusively limited to cohabitants who have a stable, intimate relationship and are financially interdependent. Two weeks ago, however, the Washington, D.C., city council unanimously passed an ordinance that covers virtually anyone living together, including siblings or platonic friends. (The measure will not go into effect, however, unless Congress approves it, which is unlikely.) Domestic partnership is often perceived as a gay issue. But Mary Bonauto, staff attorney for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), claims that "the vast majority of people using domestic-partnership laws are straight." About 70 percent of Seattle's city employees who are taking advantage of DP benefits are heterosexual; in Berkeley, Calif., the figure is 84 percent. Some homosexuals may not register because they don't want to make public their sexual orientation. Enrollment has been low across the board, largely because employees' partners usually work and have health-care plans.
Domestic partnership not only has a number of definitions, but varying benefits, some of which are abstract. Several cities give residents the opportunity to register as DPs, yet they get nothing out of it but a title. People sign up for emotional or political reasons. Dale Petty, 40, a biomedical engineer and part-time musician, lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., with Janine Palms, a 44-year-old day-car provider, and her daughter, Choi, 16. Registering, says Palms, was "a public statement of support for alternative families. Down the road, hopefully, [the ordinance] will lead to financial and legal benefits." About 1,100 San Francisco couples, including Judith Stevenson, 48, and Lily Gee Hickman, 38, have registered since February 1991. "It's important to have a legitimate title, to go through the ritual of getting blessings of the state," says Stevenson. "It's simply a first step in breaking ground for all kinds of new definitions of family."
Companies that institute a DP plan are not acting entirely out of altruism or fair play. Some do it only after employees put pressure on them; some believe it will make them more competitive. Low- or no-cost items, such as sick leave and bereavement leave, are usually extended first, but can be as important as the pricier ones. Washington's proposed plan, for instance, would require hospitals to allow domestic partners to visit their ailing partners. Big-ticket items, such as medical and dental coverage or relocation costs, usually come later, if at all. Many employers have difficulty finding an insurance company that will carry a DP health-care plan, largely because of the potentially high cost of covering people with the AIDS virus. (So far, however, employers who do have medical plans report only a tiny increase in rates.) Occasionally, a DP plan has an unusual benefit. The city of Ithaca, N.Y., gives its employees and their domestic partners husband-and-wife rates at the city golf course.
Not everyone endorses, or even condones, domestic partnerships. When the city council in Ann Arbor, Mich., debated an ordinance, opponents at a packed city hall meeting read from their Bibles. After it passed last year, Ellen and Charles Graham filed suit against the city. They claimed that the DP ordinance would lead to higher taxes and objected to its message. "[It] really implies a sexual relationship among unmarried couples," says Ellen Graham. "What do you do when children are involved?" Last month a judge dismissed the case.
There are also suits on the other side. In 1988, three New York City teachers, all of whom have same-sex partners, sued the Board of Education for DP benefits. They charged that the board, by not granting them the same benefits as married couples, discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation. Last August the court ruled in their favor; the city is appealing and has brought up cost as an issue. But, says the teachers' attorney, Paula Ettelbrick, acting executive director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, "cost is never an excuse for discrimination." Almost three quarters of the respondents to a recent Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. survey thought of a family as "a group of people who love and care for each other," not as one "related by blood, marriage or adoption." For domestic partnerships, changing times, if not the courts, may ultimately rule.
Katrine Ames with Christopher Sulavik in Ann Arbor, Nadine Joseph in San Francisco, Lucille Beachy in New York and Todd Park in Boston.