ORLANDO, Fla. - Orlando made history Thursday as couples filed into city hall to sign the city's first Domestic Partnership Affidavit.
The document grants couples the right to visit each other in hospitals and jail, along with guaranteeing the ability to participate in their children education in Orlando schools.
A city spokeswoman said 21 couples made appointments Thursday with an additional four walk-up couples. The city said in total, 96 couples called to make appointments into February.
Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, and her longtime girlfriend, Jocelyn White, were among the first couples to sign the domestic partner registry Thursday, as Mayor Buddy Dyer looked on.
Sheehan believes the registry will make Orlando more economically attractive.
"Large corporations want to be in cities that don't discriminate and offer domestic partner benefits," Sheehan said.
Orlando domestic partner registry, which costs $30 a couple, is open to unmarried heterosexual couples as well, including elderly citizens who may not have immediate family around to care for them. Of the 22 couples who made appointments Thursday it's unclear what percentage was heterosexual.
One heterosexual couple came in Thursday who have been living together for 11 years. They both were widowed and they would have lost benefits if they had re-married.
Apparently one had been the hospital recently and the other could not make decisions. Supporters of domestic partnership registries hope the paperwork will ease the process to establish the legal decision maker.
But the registry is only viable within city limits, which means a partner would only have those rights if it involves an Orlando hospital or an Orlando emergency responder.
Besides the benefits many couples say the registry makes them feel more accepted.
"It might be a piece of paper today, but it symbolizes to me that we are bonded and will take care of each other," said Bob Brings. "We'll be there for each other."
On the eve of their signing the registry, Rob Domenico and Alan Meeks said they felt like a weight has been lifted.
"For us, this is really a matter of having our relationship qualified in the city's eyes," said Domenico. "We already have our living-will set up, we already have our power of attorney set up."
But despite the legal safeguards, after 10 years together as a couple, they still fear a hospital may deny them the right to be by each other's side in an emergency.
"That's a very real, every worry that we have -- something that we're faced with every day," said Domenico.
Meeks has been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and 2 percent of the tumor remains, along with the fear a hospital may ignore their wishes.
"It's very scary," said Domenico. "Throughout our relationship, we've had to worry about his tumor and is it going to resurface? If it happens, we're lucky our families are very agreeable. We would never have a problem with our families, however, the hospital system itself may deny us the rights to make decisions for each other or even be there for each other when we need it most."
That fear is now gone thanks to Orlando's Domestic Partnership Registry. It is not marriage or civil union, but it's a right they think all couples should have.
"For those that aren't in the city limits, they deserve the same registry that we will have in the city of Orlando," said Meeks.
Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs issued a statement Wednesday evening saying she is still researching the idea for a county-wide registry, but she's considering other options as well.
Jacobs didn't comment on Thursday, but in her statement, she said she wanted to include widows and others not in a partnership.
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