Introduction to Domestic Partnership Bylaw Amendment

Arlington Town Meeting approved amendments to the town’s Domestic Partnership Bylaw, which recognizes families of two or more adults. The Domestic Partnership Bylaw proposal was created by the 2021 Town Meeting. With its passage, Arlington became the first town in the state to enact a bylaw recognizing polyamorous relationships. The bylaw was reviewed for any potential conflicts with state law by the attorney general’s office after passage and was found to be legal.

The Rainbow Commission submitted an article to the 2022 Town Meeting to amend the bylaw to more clearly define the parameters of domestic partnerships in Arlington and the administrative processes related to them. It also specified employment benefits with relation to domestic partnerships in Arlington. The proposal was approved with 162 votes in favor, 68 votes in opposition, and 9 abstentions. Rainbow Commission Co-Chair Susan Ryan-Vollmar introduced the article to Town Meeting. Her remarks are below:

I’m Susan Ryan-Vollmar, a Town Meeting member from Precinct 19. I am also one of the co-chairs of the Rainbow Commission, which placed Article 11 on the warrant. 

I’m here with Amos Meeks, a Town Meeting member from Precinct 3. Those of you present for Town Meeting last year will remember Amos as the courageous driver of the town’s groundbreaking domestic partnership bylaw. 

Arlington should be proud of being the first town in the state to enact a bylaw recognizing polyamorous relationships. Our bylaw was reviewed for any potential conflicts with state law by the attorney general’s office after passage. It was found to be entirely proper and legal. 

The most urgently needed benefit accorded through Arlington’s domestic partnership bylaw is the right to visit your partner in the hospital. Some of the proposed changes to the town’s bylaw in Article 11 affect this right and so it is vital that ARTICLE  11 is approved. 

The push to legalize domestic partnerships in Massachusetts began in the late 1980s when an HIV infection was a death sentence. Many hospital administrators routinely denied visitation rights to the partners of gay men dying of AIDS. So having a piece of paper in hand certifying that you had the legal right to visit your life partner as he lay dying was life-changing. 

Today, hospital administrators continue to turn away loved ones in non-traditional relationships. The first requirement to be able to visit a loved one or designate the loved ones who can visit you, is for your relationship to be recognized in some official form. If you do not have that official recognition, you will not have hospital visitation access. 

Under Arlington’s domestic partnership bylaw, if one member of a partnership dies, then the entire partnership is dissolved. Article 11 will update that language so that the death of one partner will not dissolve the loving relationship of surviving members. Dissolving a polyamorous relationship even temporarily, such as between the time of one partner’s death and the time when surviving partners can re-register, needlessly exposes loving partners to the emotional devastation of being turned away at the hospital door.   

Other changes to the town’s domestic partnership bylaw that will be made with the passage of ARTICLE 11 include a new section on employment benefits that town employees in registered partnerships would be eligible for. 

Those benefits include paid bereavement, sick, and parental leave. 

These employment benefits will not cost the town any money. The number of days a town employee can take for parental leave is governed by state law. The number of days a town employee can take to care for the sick parent of a partner is governed by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. The number of paid bereavement days an employee can take is five days per death. If an employee needs more time off than allotted for parental, sick, or bereavement leave, they must use accrued personal or vacation leave before taking unpaid leave. 

Town employees who register for a domestic partnership will not be able to extend their health insurance benefits to their domestic partners. That would violate state law. 

Since the domestic partnership bylaw was enacted, there have been three registered partnerships in Arlington. At $30 per registration, the town has collected $90 in fees. No town employee has registered. 

Finally, Article 11 would remove the provisions that people in registered domestic partnerships must share their living expenses and live together. 

It is true that these provisions are common in domestic partnership bylaws. That  is how they made it into Arlington’s bylaw in the first place. 

But the provenance of these provisions reside in the deep homophobia of the 1980s and 1990s. 

As a young news reporter in Boston, some of the first stories I ever covered were of the raucous Boston City Council hearings in the early 1990s during which several different domestic partnership ordinances were debated. At those hearings, I heard every argument that has ever been made against any proposal whatsoever that would grant recognition to non-traditional relationships. 

By far, the most ridiculous—yet strangely effective—argument was the claim that heterosexual employees would pretend to be gay in order to extend their health benefits to friends and family members. 

To counter this anticipated onslaught of fraud, it became common for municipalities and businesses to impose stringent requirements on employees seeking domestic partnership benefits. That is why it is much harder to register for a domestic partnership than to get a license to marry. 

If you want to get a marriage license at Arlington Town Hall you need to show up with your future spouse, prove that you are over the age of 18, fill out an intent to marry form, and pay a $30 registration fee. To register a domestic partnership, all partners must come to Town Hall, pay a $30 registration fee, and “jointly proclaim under the pains and penalties of perjury that: They have made a commitment of mutual support and caring for their domestic partners; that They reside together and intend to do so indefinitely; and that They share basic living expenses.”

When compared with the strength of protection offered by marriage, domestic partnerships are like an overcooked and soggy piece of spaghetti. It makes no sense to impose greater eligibility requirements on people seeking to register their domestic partnership than those seeking a license to marry. 

I want to conclude my introduction to Article 11 by expressing my deepest empathy for Amos and his family. 

My wife and I met in college when we were 18. We became parents after we had been together for 20 years. I could speak for days describing the insults and injuries—which include denial of hospital visitation— that we endured throughout the horrible time when our relationship had no legal protection. We spent tens of thousands of dollars throughout those years on legal fees to adopt children I gave birth to, legal fees on domestic partnerships and other arrangements such as health care proxies and power of attorney that we would not have needed if our relationship had legal recognition. In addition to those literal costs, there were other costs on which no price can be attached – the costs to your own sense of well-being and the toll on your relationship when it  isn’t recognized by health care providers, town clerks, tax accountants, and sometimes even members of your own family. 

It is shameful that Town Meeting has any power whatsoever over Amos’s family. No member of Town Meeting has done anything to deserve that power any more so than the representatives who debated marriage equality in Massachusetts had done anything to warrant the power they once wielded over my family.

But this is where we are and this is how things work.

Since I am a member of Town Meeting and I do have this power, I will exercise it judiciously and with humility. 

I urge each of you in the strongest possible terms to do the same. 

Please reject the Moore amendment. Although it may have originated with the best of intentions for the town, it is rooted in a legacy of homophobia and it is based on a complete lack of understanding of the laws governing paid parental and family and medical leave.  

And please support Article 11. It is the absolute least we can do for Amos, his family, and our other neighbors who need this recognition and protection.