Who'd have thought that same-sex relationships -- an issue that has so often driven Americans apart -- could bring Pittsburgh politicians together?
As I write this, Pittsburgh City Council is poised to approve a bill creating a registry for same-sex couples and others in "domestic partnerships." And according to the mayor's office, Luke Ravenstahl is prepared to sign it, at the kickoff for the city's Pride Week.
It's been awhile since Pittsburghers of any stripe had much to be proud of, politically speaking. In recent months, Ravenstahl has been mired in a fiasco involving an electronic sign being installed along Grant Street. His critics on council, meanwhile, filed a lawsuit over the sign -- and tried to get council to pay for an attorney their fellow councilors never agreed to hire. One minute there was outrage over the mayor traveling to Detroit for the Stanley Cup finals; the next there was turmoil because Councilor Bill Peduto, a frequent Ravenstahl opponent, plans to spend much of the summer in Europe.
But even in Pittsburgh, a bit of democracy sometimes sneaks through the political system. Sure, an attempt to limit big-dollar campaign contributions went down in flames -- but on the other hand, the domestic-registry bill got started with a contribution of just $350.
That's how much Lori McCartney spent to "buy" city council President Doug Shields at a charity auction last winter. As City Paper reported June 4, for that money McCartney and her partner sat down with Shields over dinner and explained how registries work. In dozens of other cities, employers use them to determine which unmarried couples receive health insurance and other benefits. And in the absence of a marriage license, the registries provide some official recognition for same-sex couples.
McCartney, of Carrick, may want to consider a gig as a lobbyist. In the months after having dinner with her, Shields joined with Bruce Kraus to draft a bill establishing a registry in Pittsburgh.
Their backing was no surprise: Kraus is the city's first openly gay councilor, and Shields is a solid supporter of GLBT causes. Somewhat more startling is that the full nine-member council promptly embraced the measure. (In a preliminary vote, the lone dissenter was District 9 Councilor Ricky Burgess, a minister who told CP last year that "marriage is between a man and a woman" -- even though he supported domestic-partner benefits because "[e]very person has a right to be treated fairly.")
Ravenstahl's willingness to support it is at least as admirable. Ravenstahl has met with local GLBT groups in the past, but he's also a Catholic whose supporters tend to be more conservative than, say, the voters in Shields' East End district. Ravenstahl could easily have made a less principled move -- and one more politically convenient -- by allowing the bill to become law without his signature. Instead, he's bravely coming out in support of those who have, well, come out.
Cynics might point out that politicians have little to lose. Kraus and Shields took pains to suggest that in one sense, the registry was just a bit of bureaucratic housecleaning: The city has offered domestic-partner benefits for years; the registry merely provides a consistent procedure for awarding them.
What's more, domestic partners must jump through hoops married couples need not worry about. (In one respect, for example, a domestic partnership is a more binding commitment than marriage: When a partnership dissolves, the bill requires a one-year waiting period before either party can enter into a new one. Divorcees, meanwhile, can get married as soon as the next flight to Vegas.) Pittsburgh's registry has no authority outside city limits, so it literally doesn't go far enough.
But hardly any civil-rights measure ever does. No final victory is possible unless a lot of partial victories happen first. And if politicians have little to lose from supporting this measure, isn't that the point? I mean: We've gotten to the stage where a bill to help same-sex couples get benefits is actually being judged on its merits. Think about how far we've come from the old days, when even tiny accommodations for the GLBT community were denounced as signs of the apocalypse.
I suppose there is something biblical -- in the lion-laying-down-with-the-lamb sense -- about Shgields and Ravenstahl agreeing on something. But civil-rights battles are won when we realize that we liberate ourselves by sharing freedom with others. If you don't believe it, just watch how much better Pittsburgh's politicians look this week.