Eureka Springs adds DP benefits for city workers

(From Eureka Pride on Facebook)

Eureka Springs, Ark., long known as a gay tourist destination, has become the first city in the state to offer health benefits to the domestic partners of municipal employees, according to a press release we received Monday:

EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. — The only city in Arkansas with a Domestic Partnership Registry today became the first city in the state to provide health care coverage for the domestic partners of municipal workers.

The city’s insurance provider, the Arkansas Municipal League, notified the city that beginning January 1, 2011 both same- and opposite-sex partners of city workers will have the same access to health insurance as legal spouses.

The announcement culminated a year-long campaign by residents of the Northwest Arkansas tourist town which in June 2007 became the first city in the state to enact a Domestic Partnership Registry ordinance to officially recognize unmarried couples in committed relationships.

“Once again, Eureka Springs is leading by example, this time in the realm of workplace equality,” said Michael Walsh, who helped lead the effort to expand health care coverage. “Marital status shouldn’t be the deciding factor in access to ‘family plan’ insurance. Legally wed or not, all city workers should get the same employment benefits, including access to health insurance for their partners.”

Expanding the definition of “family dependent” was “the right thing to do,” Eureka Springs Mayor Dani Joy wrote to the Municipal League in August, just weeks before the city council passed a resolution endorsing domestic partnership insurance coverage.

“I am aware as well as you that some will construe this as a ‘gay issue’,” said Joy. “But the reality is that there are many heterosexual couples who chose to live together in a committed relationship – as a family – without entering into the civil contract of marriage,. These folks face the same ‘family’ challenges every day, not the least of which is providing health care for themselves and for those who are dependent on them. . . . the definition of family is at the center of our concerns.”

Joy and city Transit Director Lamont Richie met with the Arkansas Municipal League Nov. 4 to lobby for a more inclusive health insurance policy.

Today’s announcement that their efforts were successful “is a huge step forward,” said Richie.

“And though only employees of the City of Eureka Springs will be able to take advantage of it for now,” he said, “other communities in the state may be encouraged to adopt their own Domestic Partnership Registries as a means of providing health insurance benefits to domestic partners of their employees.”

—  John Wright

El Paso voters rescind domestic partner benefits for city workers — and possibly for retirees too

El Paso was home to one of the few, if not the only, anti-gay initiative on the ballot anywhere in the U.S. on Tuesday. And The El Paso Times reports that the measure to roll back domestic partner benefits for city employees passed easily:

The ballot initiative was supported by conservative religious groups that took aim at the city’s domestic partners ordinance from the time that it was passed by the City Council last year. But the way the initiative was worded caused confusion among some voters — and questions about how city officials will implement it.

“I’m sure there will be some legal action,” Mayor John Cook said.

Fewer than two dozen city employees receive the benefit. Opponents say it sends the message that the city approves of homosexuality and of heterosexual couples living out of wedlock.

And the initiative struck a chord with a majority of the El Paso electorate.

The story goes on to say there are problems with the wording of the initiative, which says, “The city of El Paso endorses traditional family values by making health benefits available only to city employees and their legal spouse and dependent children.”

The meaning of “endorse” is unclear, according to the mayor, and city legal staff says the measure could be interpreted to exclude retirees from DP benefits.

Good. Let’s hope it gets tied up in court for a long time.

—  John Wright

LGBTs have a choice to vote Republican

The midterm election cycle presents many options for gays and lesbians all across the country: whether to pull the lever for a party that claims to stand for equality while defending “don’t ask, don’t tell” in court, a party which chooses sweeping healthcare mandates over achieving tax equity for domestic partners, and a party which failed to even bring up employment non-discrimination for a vote — or voters can choose a party that stands for lower taxes, a stronger national defense and fiscal policies that will stimulate small business and put Americans back to work.

This is a strange dynamic for many gays and lesbians, as 2008 was supposed to send a “fierce advocate” to the White House, end DADT and rapidly pass legislation ensuring equal protection under the law.

Instead, what voters got was a Democratic National Committee chairman who directed Maine voters to help out with elections in New Jersey, rather than oppose a ballot referendum on marriage equality; a White House senior advisor who labeled being gay as a “lifestyle choice” and an administration that believes DADT is constitutional and worth zealously defending in court.

Considering this sub-par record of Democratic achievement, it is time for gay and lesbian Americans to re-examine why they vote so often for candidates who fail to deliver solutions to the issues challenging their community.

As is the case for so many Americans right now, gays and lesbians should be looking for candidates supporting a legislative agenda focused on creating jobs, lowering taxes, halting runaway government spending and reducing an incomprehensible national debt.

After four years of liberal majorities in Congress, which they have used to vastly increase government’s role in the market and impose new burdens and uncertainty on America’s business owners, expecting Democrats to do an about-face and encourage any kind of economic opportunity is an exercise in futility. Whatever your sexual orientation, this economy hurts us all. It is time for a change.

R. Clarke Cooper is executive director of Log Cabin Republicans. E-mail him at rccooper@logcabin.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 29, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas

Mayfield, who likened gays to prostitutes and drug users, attacks Fitzsimmons for being short

Ken Mayfield

Earlier we quoted openly gay Dallas County District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons as saying that County Commissioner Ken Mayfield is “the most homophobic elected official in Dallas County.”

Now Mayfield, a Republican, has responded by attacking Fitzsimmons, a Democrat, for being short.

The Dallas Morning News picked up our report and sought a comment from Mayfield. According to the DMN, Mayfield responded by calling Fitzsimmons “a little man with a little mind.”

Mayfield also insisted he’s not anti-gay and challenged Fitzsimmons to give examples of his allleged homophobia. Well, allow us to share just one:

In 1995, Mayfield and two other commissioners wrote a letter to 43 local doctors urging them to support the county’s ban on distribution of condoms by the Health Department to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. Here’s what Mayfield and the two other commissioners wrote, according to an article that appeared in The DMN on Friday, June 16, 1995.

“We don’t want anyone, especially anyone in authority, telling our children or future grandchildren that it’s an approved or acceptable lifestyle to be a homosexual, a prostitute or a drug user,” the three commissioners wrote. “And, we don’t intend to be the vehicle through which others are given this message.”

Mayfield continued to support the condom ban until last year, when he opposed a measure that successfully lifted it.

Mayfield’s Democratic opponent this year, Dr. Elba Garcia, helped push through two major pro-equality measures during her time on the Dallas City Council. The first was a citywide ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, and public accommodations. The second was benefits for the domestic partners of gay and lesbian employees.

—  John Wright

Hate gets expensive in El Paso

El Paso

El Paso for Jesus has forced a special election in the West Texas city. No, El Paso for Jesus did not get Jesus on the ballot; they got domestic partnership benefits on the ballot, according to the El Paso Times.

And like any good Christian group, they’re against health care. At least they’re against it for people who aren’t married heterosexuals.

The cost of putting the issue on the ballot is more than the cost of the benefits. Currently, the benefits are offered to the unmarried partners of city employees, both gay and straight.

The election will cost $131,000. The benefits to 19 couples that registered to receive them cost $28,770.

And now, to top it all off, the thoughtful folks at El Paso for Jesus are offering to marry at no charge any of the straight couples. No word on how tasteful the weddings will be, but hell, a free wedding is a free wedding. What else do you need? And for the gay couples, they have offered to turn them straight. The head of the group called it “get free of homosexuality.” He said that he has found that “homosexuals can be set free.” He did not point to an example of his successful counseling or explain how gays are now in captivity.

The way the ballot initiative is worded, domestic partner benefits could be offered only to “city employees and their legal spouse and dependent children.” Retirees would be excluded from benefits. They could even lose their pensions. Oops.

Of course, El Paso for Jesus claims this wasn’t their intent. But the city attorney said that’s what’s on the ballot and if that’s what’s voted into law, the city will have no alternative but to uphold the law. So groups like the police and retired firefighters aren’t too keen on this ballot initiative.

Domestic partner benefits were first debated after an incident in El Paso in 2009 where five men were removed from a fast food taco restaurant after two of them kissed.

—  David Taffet

FW adds partner, pension benefits for LGBT workers

HR Commissioner Thomas says Community Relations Department cuts won’t impair enforcement of nondiscrimination ordinance

Tammye Nash  |  Senior Editor nash@dallasvoice.com

FORT WORTH — After months of a contentious budget process, the Fort Worth City Council on Tuesday, Sept. 21 approved a $1.3 billion budget for fiscal year 2011, and with that vote also approved domestic partner benefits for city employees.

Beginning Oct. 4, LGBT city employees will be able to add their domestic partners to their insurance plan, with the employee paying all the costs of the added benefits. The insurance will go into effect Jan. 1.

The new budget also calls on the city to increase its contribution to the pension fund by 4 percent and to offer new hires the option of designating a survivor, which can include a domestic partner, to receive benefits.

The move to offer partner benefits came in under the radar, happening quietly and with none of the often rancorous debate that accompanied the vote last fall to add gender identity to the city’s nondiscrimination policy, or even the decision to form the Diversity Task Force that recommended adding partner benefits.

The task force was formed last summer in the wake of the raid on the Rainbow Lounge, and was created to suggest ways that the city could better serve its LGBT employees and citizens.

In fact, it was the way the council set up the task force that allowed the partner benefits to be added without opposition, according to Thomas Anable, president of Fairness Fort Worth.

The task force was created to study city policies and make recommendations on changes to City Manager Dale Fissler. All the recommendations Fissler concurred with, with the exception of any cost changes or policy changes, would be adopted without the need of a vote by the council.

Of the 20 recommendations made by the task force, all but three were adopted in January without a council vote.

One of those three — adding gender identity to the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance — happened last fall during a marathon council meeting that included dozens of speakers on both sides of the issue.

The council chose to delay implementation the other two recommendations — partner benefits and adding insurance coverage for gender reassignment surgery — pending further study to determine the cost to the city.

Anable said that once it was determined that adding partner benefits wouldn’t cost the city, partner benefits were “a done deal. The council didn’t even need to vote on it.”

A spokesman in Mayor Mike Moncrief’s office confirmed changes in the pension plan and the addition of partner benefits, but said details on the pension plan were still being hammered out.

He also confirmed that the addition of partner benefits did not require a council vote, but that the plan was presented to the council as an informational item during a pre-council meeting in August.

During the budget planning process, Fairness Fort Worth had expressed concern that proposed cuts in the city’s Community Relations Department would damage the department’s ability to investigate alleged violations of the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance.

But on Lisa Thomas, an openly lesbian member of the Fort Worth Human Relations Commission, said this week the final changes will not impede investigations or enforcement of the ordinance.

Thomas said commission members and commission chair Estrus Tucker, Community Relations Department Director Vanessa Boling, Fissler and Assistant City Manager Fernando Costa had “worked hard to ensure that the necessary budget cuts do not harm the ability of the Human Relations Commission to carry out its mission.”

In the final budget, the Community Relations Department has been eliminated, along with Boling’s post. Staff was reduced from almost 80 to almost 40, with some of those 40 employees whose positions were cut being absorbed into other departments, Thomas said.

“The remaining staff of 13 will support the Human Relations Commission and carry out the investigations and enforce federal regulations under Fair Housing and Equal Employment in addition to the recently-expanded city of Fort Worth nondiscrimination ordinance,” Thomas said.

The remaining staff includes an administrator, support staff, two communications offiers and an investigatory staff.

“I believe that the organization as it is proposed in the budget can work and will be considered substantially equivalent to the requirements as laid out in the federal regulations, allowing the commission and its work to continue,” Thomas said.

“In this way, we can continue to protect all the people who live, work and visit in Fort Worth.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 24, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

ACLU sues Alaska over same-sex property taxes

MARY PEMBERTON  |  Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Tuesday, Aug. 3 challenging the way property taxes are assessed for households headed by same-sex couples.

State regulations as interpreted by the state and the municipality of Anchorage discriminate against same-sex couples by denying property tax exemptions allowed for senior citizens and disabled veterans, said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of ACLU in Alaska.

“We are asking the court to overturn an unconstitutional practice of the state of Alaska. Lesbian and same-sex couples who are homeowners in the state of Alaska are discriminated against,” Mittman said at a news conference outside Superior Court in Anchorage.

The ACLU says some same-sex couples are being forced to pay more in property taxes on their homes than married couples, and that is a violation of equal protection rights under the Alaska Constitution.

The lawsuit asks the court to require the state and the municipality of Anchorage to apply the tax exemption to three couples represented in the lawsuit as if they were in marriages the state recognizes. Alaska does not recognize marriage between same-sex domestic partners.

Mittman said married couples can apply for a $150,000 tax exemption regardless if the home is jointly owned or not. Same-sex domestic partners, however, are allowed only half the exemption because the state considers them roommates instead of married couples, he said.

Department of Law spokesman Bill McAllister said it was too early to comment on the lawsuit because it had not been reviewed yet.

Julie Schmidt, 67, and Gayle Schuh, 62, have been together for 33 years. Their bank accounts and real estate holdings are jointly owned. After retiring from long careers in education in Illinois, they moved to Alaska in 2003 and four years ago bought a home in Eagle River. When Schmidt turned 65, they applied for the tax exemption for senior citizens.

Schuh said they have never been allowed the maximum exemption.

“As a retired couple, this hits us in our pocketbooks and we would like some fairness and equity. It would only take a little bit for the state of Alaska to recognize us and give us the maximum benefit of this tax exemption,” Schuh said at the news conference. “We would like all committed couples in Alaska to be able to say their state recognizes their commitment to each other and their state believes in equality for all of us.”

The other plaintiffs are Julie Vollick, 45, and Susan Bernard, 41, who have been together for seven years and are raising four children in a home they purchased in Eagle River. Vollick has a service-related permanent disability from her 20 years of service in the U.S. Air Force.

Fred Traber, 62, and Larry Snider, 69, have been together for 28 years and got married in California in 2008. They live in an Anchorage condominium that is in Traber’s name. Therefore, they have been denied any part of the exemption, the lawsuit says.

“If Snider and Traber were a married couple under Alaska law, the full tax exemption would apply regardless of whether the house were in Traber’s name, Snider’s name, or held jointly between them,” the lawsuit says.

Mittman said the same-sex couples are being penalized for being in relationships.

“They are not roommates. … They are family,” he said.

—  John Wright

Minnesota governor vetoes 'Final Wishes' bill because he supports 'traditional marriage'

tim_pawlenty_mn_gov
Gov. Tim Pawlenty

Minnesota’s Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, on Saturday vetoed a bill passed by the state’s lawmakers that would have given same-sex partners control over the dispensation of their partners’ remains after death. Pawlenty said he vetoed the bill because it “addresses a non-existent problem” (same-sex couples can draw up living wills, he said) and because domestic partners should not be treated the same as married spouses.

In Minnesota, only surviving legally married spouses have the right to decide what to do with the remains of a deceased spouse. And of course, only opposite-gender couples are allowed to be legally married there.

Marriage — defined as between a man and woman — should remain elevated in our society at a special level, as it traditionally has been. I oppose efforts to treat domestic relationships as the equivalent of traditional marriage. Accordingly, I am opposed to this bill,” Pawlenty said.

The legislation, known as the Final Wishes Bill, would also have allowed surviving same-sex domestic partners to sue for recovery of hospital and funeral costs in the event of a wrongful death.

Pawlenty has said he won’t seek re-election as governor and has been rumored as a possible GOP presidential candidate in 2012.

You can read more about it at OnTop Magazine.

—  admin

Boxer introduces COBRA benefits bill for domestic partners

Sen. Barbara Boxer
Sen. Barbara Boxer

Washington, D.C. — Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) yesterday introduced the Equal Access to COBRA Act, which would allow many domestic partners the same access married spouses currently have to COBRA health coverage if their partner loses a job.

The law would apply to companies that already offer health coverage to domestic partners and their children. Currently, more than half of Fortune 500 companies cover domestic partners under their health plans.

Boxer said, “This is a question of fairness: Every family deserves access to health insurance, especially in this tough economy. This bill ensures that domestic partners and their families will have equal access to health coverage after a job loss.”

Under federal law, employers must offer continuing health care coverage to departing employees and their beneficiaries for up to 36 months.  Current federal laws related to COBRA coverage do not apply to domestic partners or same-sex spouses — even at companies that offer health coverage to domestic partners of employees.

This legislation would change federal law to allow equal access to COBRA coverage for all individuals who are covered by an employer’s health plan.  It would apply to domestic partners as they are defined by an employer’s health insurance plan.

Boxer is up for re-election this November.

—  David Taffet

DART accused of transphobia

Judge reversed order after transit agency fought longtime employee’s gender-marker change last year

John Wright | News Editor
wright@dallasvoice.com

TRANS FRIENDLY? | Judge Lynn Cherry, right, is shown alongside drag performer Chanel during Stonewall Democrats’ 2008 holiday party at the Round-Up Saloon. A few months later, Cherry ruled against a transgender DART employee and overturned a gender-marker change. (John Wright/Dallas Voice)

DART stands accused of bigotry and transphobia after attorneys for the local transit agency intervened in family court last year to challenge a gender-marker change granted to an employee.

According to court records, a transgender DART employee obtained a court order in February 2009 directing all state agencies to correct their records by changing her gender-marker from male to female, including on her birth certificate.

As Dallas Voice reported last week, many Dallas County judges have been routinely granting gender-marker changes to transgender people who meet set criteria — including documentation from licensed medical personnel — since the Democratic sweep of 2006.

The DART employee, who’s name is being withheld to protect her anonymity, later presented the court order to the transit agency’s human resources department and requested that her personnel records be changed to reflect her new gender.

But DART’s attorneys objected to the gender-marker change and responded by filing a motion seeking a rehearing in court. DART’s objections prompted 301st Family District Court Judge Lynn Cherry to reverse her order granting the gender-marker change.

“Where does this stop when an employer can start interfering with your personal life and family law decisions?” said longtime local transgender activist Pamela Curry, a friend of the DART employee who brought the case to the attention of Dallas Voice. “She was devastated. This should be a serious concern to a lot of people — everybody — and I just think this story needs to be told.”

Judge Cherry, who received Stonewall Democrats of Dallas’ Pink Pump Award for her support of the group last year, didn’t respond to messages seeking comment this week.

Morgan Lyons, a spokesman for DART, noted that Cherry reversed her order before the agency actually filed its motion for a rehearing. However, Curry alleges that DART’s attorneys met with Cherry privately and pressured her into reversing the order.

As is common with gender-marker changes, the case file has been sealed, but Dallas Voice obtained copies of some of the court documents from Curry.

In their motion for a rehearing, DART attorneys Harold R. McKeever and Hyattye Simmons argued that Texas law grants registrars, not judges, the authority to amend birth certificates. They also argued that birth certificates could be amended only if they were inaccurate at the time of birth.

“It’s not a DART issue, it’s a point of law,” Lyons told Dallas Voice this week, in response to the allegations of bigotry. “The lawyers concluded that the birth certificate could not be altered by law, unless there was a mistake made when the birth certificate was completed, and again, the judge changed the order before we even wound up going into court with it.”

Asked about DART’s LGBT-related employment policies, Lyons said the agency’s nondiscrimination policy includes sexual orientation but not gender identity/expression. The agency, which is governed by representatives from Dallas and numerous suburbs, also doesn’t offer benefits to the domestic partners of employees.

Lyons didn’t respond to other allegations made by Curry, including that the agency has fought the employee’s transition from male to female at every step of the way.

Curry, who helped the employee file her pro se petition for a gender-marker change, said the employee has worked for DART for more than 20 years and has an outstanding performance record.

The employee began to come out as transgender in 2003 and had gender reassignment surgery more than three years ago, Curry said. Curry said DART supervisors have at various times told the employee that she couldn’t have long hair, couldn’t wear skirts to work and couldn’t use women’s restrooms at work.

The employee has responded by showing up at work in her uniform so she doesn’t have to change and using public restrooms on her bus route, Curry said.

Supervisors have also told the employee she can’t talk to the media and can’t join political groups, such as Stonewall Democrats, Curry said.

“She’s intimidated and she’s scared,” Curry said. “One supervisor even suggested to her that if she doesn’t lay off it, they will mess up her retirement.”

Elaine Mosher, a Dallas attorney who’s familiar with the case, also questioned why DART intervened. Mosher didn’t represent the employee in the case but has handled gender-marker changes for other clients.

Mosher said the employee’s gender doesn’t have any bearing on her ability to do her job at DART.

“My argument in any gender marker matter is, the birth certificate was wrong, that’s why they had to go through the transition surgery, in essence to put them in the correct gender,” Mosher said. “All I can tell you is that it seems strange to me that DART would care one way or another what the gender marker of anybody that works for them is.”

Moster added that she believes someone at DART may have been “freaked out” by the employee’s transition from male to female and developed a “vendetta” against her.

“I wish I had a good explanation for why [DART got involved] other than the fact that I know there are people out there who are utterly blind and prejudiced for no other reason than they are,” Mosher said. “I compare it to some of the nonsense African-Americans had to live through in the ’60s.”

Mosher also said she’s “very surprised” that Cherry reversed the order granting the gender marker change.

Erin Moore, president of Stonewall Democrats, said she’s heard “bits and pieces” of the story but isn’t sure of all the facts.

Moore said in response to her questions about the case, Cherry told her she couldn’t talk about it because it’s still within the timeframe for a possible appeal.

“Lynn is a longtime supporter of Stonewall and I would think she would be fair in the case,” Moore said. “I’m confident she’s an ally to this community.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 19, 2010.

—  admin