The Queer Agenda 2007

An incremental approach to making gay life a little bit more fabulous


On May 20, 1978, Kenneth Decker's first love was beaten to death at 17 by three men in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. That "devastating experience," he says, shaped his life as an activist working with gay youth. A quarter-century later, Decker was driving near Newington, Connecticut, when he was pulled over by three policemen. "They roughed me up a little," he says. "It was mostly really rude and obnoxious verbal threats and harassments. They called me a 'fucking faggot' and a 'goddamned queer.' Today, Decker lives in Virginia, the closest state to New York without a hate crimes law protecting LGBT people. The federal Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed the House on May 3 and is currently before the Senate, as the Matthew Shepard Act. The bill expands federal authority to investigate and prosecute hate crimes, which would be especially important in states like Virginia where there is no state law. And for the first time this federal law specifically defines hate crimes based on the victim's actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender or gender identity. "A lot of the importance behind it is symbolic," Decker says, adding that education must tackle the causes of hate head-on.


In a June 4 survey by the Human Rights Campaign, all eight Democratic presidential candidates came out in favor of providing same-sex couples willing to seek a state blessing the 1,138 federal spousal benefits they now lack. (After some flip-flopping, it looks like Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani is sort of standing behind civil unions as well.) On the state level, civil unions had their best legislative session ever this year—between December and April New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Oregon passed civil unions or domestic partnership laws. Today, about one-fifth of the U.S. population is covered by such laws. On the other hand, according to the Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 41 states have anti-gay marriage and family measures. And interestingly, some gay-rights groups are moving the target. For example, the "Beyond Marriage" coalition seeks access to government support for families, relationships, and households of all kinds, whether joined by love, kinship, or friendship. Terry Boggis, for 20 years the director of the Center Kids program at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in New York City, says, "The right to marry is not the be all and end all for me personally. I've seen way too many families that would not be protected by privileging couples."


The right of gay parents to form families through adoption is a state-by-state crapshoot. Utah, Nebraska, Mississippi, Michigan, and Florida have laws specifically restricting adoption by gay individuals and/or same-sex couples, while courts in Ohio and Wisconsin have ruled against second-parent adoption. Overseas, countries like China and Guatemala have banned adoption by gay couples; closer to home, doctors in some conservative states refusing to help lesbian couples conceive. In general, though, with the new Democratic majority in Congress, the number of bad parenting bills has gone down while the good laws are trending up, says Kara Suffredini, the legislative lawyer responsible for adoption issues at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Colorado joined the short list of states (California, Connecticut, and Vermont) explicitly granting second-parent adoption. Statutes are important to save families from being at a judge's mercy, Suffredini adds. "When you don't have laws that specifically say that couples of the same sex can adopt, you have patchwork protection."


President George W. Bush can be credited with one great achievement on behalf of gay American couples and families. It's been little noticed to say the least, and it's not clear that W. even knew what he was doing, but victories are victories. On August 17, 2006, Bush signed the Pension Protection Act, a 907-page law that includes two key provisions affecting any couples who can't legally marry. As before, you can designate your domestic partner as a beneficiary on your 401(k). If you were to die, he can now transfer the funds into an IRA account and draw them down over time, avoiding tax penalties for early withdrawal. Alternatively, if he were to face health or financial problems, you can now take "hardship distributions" from your retirement fund to get through the rough patch. "Americans who spend a lifetime working hard should be confident that their pensions will be there when they retire," Bush said as he signed the Pension Protection Act of 2006. Indeed. And they should be confident that their partners will be able to share in that security. Now we just have to get the word out.

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