ATLANTA (AP) — When Donna Waddell’s partner of 11 years, Jean Tyson, complained of chest pains, Waddell dialed 911.

As the ambulance was en route, Waddell dashed for the lock box where the couple keeps their durable power of attorney. If Tyson became unconscious and medical decisions needed to be made, Waddell, a nurse, knew she’d need the papers. And she worried that without them she wouldn’t be able to get into Tyson’s hospital room because of family-only rules.

With the debate raging in Georgia — and nationally — over a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages, Waddell and many others in the gay and lesbian community say they have less ambitious, and more mundane, concerns.

“I don’t want to minimize the importance of same-sex marriage. Ultimately, it’s very important,” Waddell, 59, said. “But we’ve got a lot of other things we need to take care of before we get there.”

Hate crimes, domestic partner benefits, securing hospital visitation, job protections and adoption are issues that top the agenda for many of Georgia’s gay and lesbian residents. Some say the relentless focus on the polarizing topic of gay marriage has been driven by opponents of such unions, not the gay community. They say it’s been a damaging distraction, especially since there’s already a state law on the books that makes it clear that same-sex marriages aren’t recognized in Georgia.

“Let’s be honest,” said Kevin Clark, who runs a bed and breakfast in Savannah which caters to gay tourists. “Gay marriage is not going to happen in Georgia anytime soon. We need to look at what we can get done. But instead ALL we hear about is gay marriage. It stops anything else from happening.”

If the positions of the three major candidates for governor are any indication, the gay community has a long way to go. Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue opposes civil unions, domestic partner benefits for state employees and amending state non-discrimiation laws to include sexual orientation. So do his would-be Democratic opponents, Secretary of State Cathy Cox and Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, according to their campaigns.

Chuck Bowen, executive director of Georgia Equality, the state’s largest gay rights group, said there is a split in the gay community between those who want to shoot for the full equality that same-sex marriage would signal and those who want to move forward in a more incremental fashion.

“(Same-sex) marriage is this scary, boogeyman to some people,” Bowen said. “It’s caused us to lose a lot of support from people who might be sympathetic and supportive on other issues.”

Bowen said the gay community saw some progress this year when the state Senate passed hate crimes legislation that included sexual orientation. But the bill was defeated in the House.

For the most part, the group has been working on a local level on issues unrelated to marriage. Athens-Clarke County voted just last week to amend its employee non-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation. It joins 10 other localities — including the cities of Atlanta and Savannah — that have already adopted the change.

And Bowen said in Georgia, the private sector has been leading the way, with many of the state’s major employers offering domestic partner benefits including Delta, BellSouth, Coca-Cola, Home Depot and Cox Communications.

Some who oppose same-sex marriage argue that in pushing smaller initiatives the gay community is simply trying to lay the groundwork to eventually recognize same-sex marriage.

“I definitely believe that with the smaller incremental steps the ultimate goal is to sanction a major union between two men and two women,” said Sadie Fields, state chairman of Georgia’s chapter of the Christian Coalition.

In Georgia, the marriage issue is poised to take center stage again this summer. The state’s highest court is set to hear arguments June 27 on a Fulton County Superior Court judge’s decision to toss out the constitutional ban on same sex marriages that was approved by voters in 2004. Judge Constance Russell did not touch on the merits of same-sex marriage in her ruling but said the ballot measure — which 76 percent of voters supported — violated the state’s single-subject ballot rule.

If the Georgia Supreme Court fails to rule by Aug. 7 or doesn’t reverse Russell’s decision, Perdue has vowed to call a special session of the state Legislature to get the issue back on the ballot for the November election.

Georgia still has a law on the books banning same-sex marriage. The Defense of Marriage Act passed in 1996. Bowen said he is unaware of any gay or lesbian couples who have tried to marry in Georgia in recent years.

“It’s illegal,” he said.

Philip Rafshoon, owner the Outwrite Books, a gay and lesbian-themed bookstore in Atlanta, said the renewed debate about same-sex marriage has given his community a forum to talk about their lives.

“People see that we’re their neighbors. We’re not scary. We live next door,” Rafshoon said.

But conservatives, emboldened by the support the same-sex marriage amendment received at the polls, may have their eyes on a new prize: adoption by gay and lesbian couples.

Rumors were rampant early this year that the GOP leaders in the state Legislature would this year push through a ban on gay adoptions. It didn’t happen. But state Sen. Nancy Schaefer, a strong supporter of the ban on same-sex marriage, said stay tuned.

“It may be this coming year,” she said.


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