By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
ITEM 1: HEALTH INSURANCE TAX
Currently the IRS treats gay and straight partners differently when it comes to health benefits. Married employees don't get taxed on the value of dependents' insurance premiums or health benefits; if you use domestic partner coverage, you do get hit with the extra tax. Together with the bite from Social Security, federal, state, and local levies can amount to almost $5,000 a yearall for trying to take care of your queer family.
The Tax Equity for Health Plan Beneficiaries Act of 2007, introduced by Washington State representative Jim McDermott in the U.S. House at the end of March, would remedy this inequity for gay and unmarried straight couples alike, by excluding the value of domestic partner health benefits from gross income. Employers benefit too, since their payroll taxes are higher when the value of health benefits are included in salaries. Senators Gordon Smith of Oregon, a Republican, and our own Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, are expected to introduce the bill in the Senate soon.
ITEM 2: IMMIGRATION
Sylvia Makresia represents a different aspect of the current debate over immigration, and not because her parents came to New York City from Greece. Her partner of the past 11 years is a Spanish woman without a green card, so they must split their time between here and Madridwhere same-sex couples can legally marry. "It's a constant back and forth. You never know where you're going to be. It takes a toll financially and emotionally," Makresia says.
On May 8, New York City representative Jerrold Nadler and Vermont senator Patrick Leahy introduced legislation that would allow American citizens like Makresia to sponsor their same-sex partners for immigration purposes. Like other binational couples, they would have to prove that they have financial ties and get friends and family to sign affidavits. The bill is called the Uniting American Families Act, and Makresia thinks it's overdue. "I have rights in Madrid, and I wish I had the same in America."
ITEM 3: SAFE SCHOOLS
Ten states have "safe schools" laws, which specifically prohibit bullying on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation. That's the second most common cause of bullying. Some studies show that places with these laws have 25 percent less violence, name-calling, and intimidation. "I don't think these anti-bullying programs can stop bullying, but I certainly believe it can lower the level," says Christian Fuscarino, president of the gay-straight alliance at Columbia High School in South Orange, New Jersey. "If the topic of homosexuality is brought up between two people, usually it's the closed-minded person who ends up opening their mind."
A "Dignity Coalition" of over 100 organizations, including teachers unions and gay-straight alliances, has been lobbying to bring a safe-schools law to New York. For seven straight years, the measure has passed the State Assembly yet failed to come to a vote in the Senate. " Iowa passed a law this year," says a disgusted Kevin Jennings, executive director of GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. "We're supposed to be the cutting edge here in New York and we're behind Iowa now. It's incredibly frustrating." But, he vows, the Dignity Coalition is in it for the long haul.
ITEM 4: JOB DISCRIMINATION
Over half of all Fortune 500 companies currently have official policies in place prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But in 33 states it is still legal to fire someone for being gay, and in 42 states you can fire someone for being transgender. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), introduced by Representative Barney Frank in late April with bipartisan sponsorship, would for the first time make sexual orientation and gender identity protected categories under federal employment law. Among the bill's supporters is the head of the Transport Workers Union of Americarepresenting over 130,000 pilots and train conductorswho compared discriminating against gays and lesbians to barring redheads or lefties from employment.
ITEM 5: TRANSGENDER RIGHTS
Gender identity and expression stand at the rapidly advancing frontier of queer acceptance. In the past year alone, Colorado, Iowa, Oregon, Vermont, and North Carolina have passed laws with transgender-inclusive language; ENDA, the antidiscrimination law now in the House of Representatives is being updated to be transgender-inclusive and will then be introduced in the Senate. "I think we've reached a tipping point," says Lisa Mottet, who works on transgender issues for the Gay and Lesbian Taskforce. "It's been a great year for transgender rights."
But at the local level, June Brown at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project sees an enforcement gap. Her clients are often poor people of color facing multiple levels of discrimination from landlords, bosses, even the state. "People do come through these doors in need of basic, basic services," Brown says. "One in five transgender people have experienced discrimination from a social service provider."
ITEM 6: DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL
Rhonda Davis gave up her career for the truth. Last June she put on her Navy uniform, went to a Marriage Equality New York rally, and told a reporter for 1010 Wins that she was there to stand up for her right to marry the love of her life, a Korean woman. "I'd done a lot of soul-searching and decided I don't give a crap what I have to personally lose to make people understand this is wrong." Now the award-winning military broadcaster and public-affairs officer is turning her communications experience toward ending "Don't ask, don't tell," the Clinton-era policy that bans being out or actively gay in the armed forces. The Military Readiness Enhancement Act, introduced in February of this year by Massachusetts representative Marty Meehan, replaces "Don't ask, don't tell" with a nondiscrimination policy. It already has 109 co-sponsors and the support of a group of retired generals. At a time when our military is stretched thinner than ever, and badly needed Arab-language interpreters are being tossed for their sexuality, most Americans in polls support allowing U.S. policy to match those of 24 of the 26 other NATO countries. The other holdouts? Portugal and Turkey.