Advocates debate domestic partnerships vs. marriage.

Standing behind her third-row desk on the floor of the New Mexico House of Representatives, holding the microphone close to her mouth, state Rep. Mimi ***image1***Stewart made the closing argument for her domestic partnerships bill.

�Mr. Speaker, there has been some misinformation,� Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat, intoned. �This bill states specifically that domestic partnership means a relationship that is not marriage.�

As if on cue, state Rep. Norma Espinoza, R-Chaves, offered her own view.

�Domestic partnership is just another word for marriage,� she countered.

Stewart ultimately prevailed with a Jan. 24 33 to 31 vote in favor of her Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act. If it passes the state Senate and is signed into law by Gov. Bill Richardson�the former considered likely, the latter a sure thing�New Mexico would become the 11th state to enact such landmark legislation [Jan. 23, SFR Talk: �One for All�]. But as Stewart and her allies beat back what they call misinformation, New Mexico�s gay community is having its own internal debate over domestic partnerships versus marriage.

�Domestic partnership benefits are not portable, they offer some benefits but they create a second class status,� Norma Vazquez de Houdek tells SFR. She quickly adds that while she supports HB 9 as a �good first step to marriage,� it�s not �full and equal equality.�

Vazquez de Houdek will mark her fourth wedding anniversary with Mary Houdek on Feb. 20. That�s when former Sandoval County Clerk Victoria Dunlap, a Republican, married 64 same-sex couples before she was ordered to stop by county and state officials.

Linda Siegel, one of four lobbyists employed by Equality New Mexico to push HB 9, says she�s aware of the internal debate, but touts the bill as positive and doable.***image2***

�I think it�s really important to get what you can get, when you can get it,� Siegel says. The bill would entitle both gay and straight couples who have �chosen to share in another adult�s life in a relationship of mutual caring and support� to �the same legal obligations, responsibilities, protections and benefits� that are currently available to married couples, according to the text of the proposal. Just like couples seeking civil marriage, domestic partners would have to pay a $25 registration fee.

Speaking for the LGBT community, Siegel, a lesbian, proclaims the bill �a huge step forward in our community.�

That�s also how Marshall Martinez, a columnist with New Mexico Voice, an LGBT publication, sees it. But he also points out the bill does not embody true equality.

�I think the gay community deserves the same thing that everybody else has,� he says. �But first and foremost, I�m a political pragmatist.� Martinez points out how close the House vote ultimately was, and the uncertain prospects for the bill in the more conservative state Senate.

Regarding the difference between marriage rights and the rights envisioned by HB 9, Vazquez de Houdek explains that there are nearly 1,500 rights and benefits that flow from a legally recognized civil marriage. �But only half of that comes with a domestic partnership,� she says.

But that�s mostly a consequence of federal inaction on the issue, Martinez, a member of the Equality New Mexico board, explains. State action, even if it can�t engender the ability to jointly file tax returns or to tap a spouse�s Social Security survivor benefits, is preferable to waiting on the feds, he says.

�You tell me how close are we to getting gay marriage at the federal level?� Martinez asks.

Donald Stout, the past president of the Human Rights Alliance, says he just can�t get worked up over the terminology. �Frankly, I don�t care what it�s called,� he says. He sees HB 9 as progress, but recognizes that domestic partnership benefits are not equal to those conferred by marriage.

That hasn�t stopped Equality New Mexico from describing legislators as either voting �for equality� or �against equality� in recent e-mails tracking HB 9�s  progress.

�With domestic partnerships you only get half the rights you deserve. It would make it more equal,� Mary Houdek says, �if that makes any sense.�

But as HB 9 gets closer to landing on the governor�s desk, many gay activists appear to favor pragmatism over purity.

�I think we have to get ourselves to a place where we�re absolutely equal to everyone else and that means marriage,� Martinez says. �But right now we have to be really happy with the ability to pass domestic partnerships here in New Mexico.�