Richmond Wants To Offer Benefits to City Workers in Domestic Partnerships

City Council members are in approval of the measure, but the state of Virginia doesn't recognized such civil unions. That presents a hurdle to this proposal.

Photo courtesy Richmond Region Tourism / RVA Image Library / Out RVA

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This story was published as part of our joint Equitable Cities Reporting Fellowship For Reparations Narratives with Richmond’s VPM News.

In Richmond, Virginia, a new measure extending benefits to city employees’ domestic partners received unanimous approval during the first council meeting of the year.

Narissa Rahaman, executive director of statewide LGBTQ+ advocacy organization Equality Virginia, says that offering and extending domestic partner benefits to all employees gives the city an opportunity to attract and retain a talented workforce while also embracing inclusivity.

“Even after nationwide marriage equality, it’s still important that municipalities and employers respect the diverse family forms that exist here in Richmond. We want to make sure that includes expanding domestic partner benefits to make sure that includes all families, no matter what that looks like,” Rahaman says. “For many LGBTQ couples, some of us choose to get married and some of us choose to not, and that has really no implication on the commitment we make with our spouses or partners.”

The Human Rights Campaign is the largest LGBTQ+ political lobbying organization in the United States with roughly 3 million members. HRC annually produces the Municipality Equality Index, a report that provides a review of local laws and policies that affect LGBTQ+ people and their families. In its last assessment, Richmond fell shy of a perfect score, having points deducted for the lack of city services offered to LGBTQ+ residents — and for not offering full benefits to city employees in domestic partnerships.

The proposal was patroned by City Council President Kristen Nye, newly elected to the role. “It’s really commendable to see that Council President Nye is planning to make these changes, to really just recognize the diversity of our community and how we show our commitment to the ones we love,” Rahaman says.

A domestic partnership is when two individuals, whether of the same or opposite sex, reside together and share a domestic life without being married or united through a civil union. Despite the increased prevalence of domestic partnerships as an alternative to marriage, Virginia ceased to acknowledge domestic partnerships or civil unions following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. The state also does not recognize common-law marriage, which is when two individuals cohabit and consider themselves married without undergoing formal marriage procedures.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are nearly 9 million cohabitating couples nationwide. Currently, California; Maine; Nevada; Oregon; Washington state; and Washington, D.C., legally recognize domestic partnerships. Additionally, Hawaii offers reciprocal beneficiary relationships, an arrangement akin to domestic partnerships.

In 2006, Virginia passed a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, despite then-Gov. Tim Kaine’s objections. The Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges nullified Virginia’s ban in 2015, mandating that all states issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Last year, now-U.S. Sen. Kaine and Sen. Mark Warner urged the General Assembly to repeal the earlier ban. The pair said they aimed to protect marriage equality by highlighting that the state ban poses a threat to the rights of same-sex couples to marry in Virginia if the Obergefell ruling is ever overturned.

Later, during the 2023 General Assembly session, a modified proposal to repeal the amendment faced opposition in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates. Despite efforts by supporters to secure bipartisan votes by removing any explicit endorsement of LGBTQ+ equality, the measure failed. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, LGBTQ+ advocates have voiced concerns regarding the stability of marriage equality.

“We saw last year what happened with Roe v. Wade, and the Supreme Court weighing in on overturning that. There is a real palpable fear among LGBTQ couples, could that happen to marriage equality?” Rahaman says. “One reason why we want to repeal the ban that exists in our current constitution is solely to make sure that we’re affirming the marriages and the relationships that exist in every corner of Virginia.”

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Barry Greene, Jr. is Next City's Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow For Reparations Narratives and a native of Southside Richmond, Virginia. Through his newsletter and moniker “density dad,” Greene is constantly working to spread awareness of the necessity to think of families with young children as well as seniors within the built environment. As a 2023 NACTO Transportation Justice Fellow, Barry aims to help Richmond return to its glory days of leading the industry in public transportation. You can catch him commuting by Brompton, bus or both in conjunction.

Tags: lgbtqrichmondvirginia

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