Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Torn Apart: Ed and Tim, Binational Gay Couple in Durham

(Thanks to ENC Communication Intern Matthew McGibney.)

I met Ed at the Equality NC Day of Action in May, while we were both waiting to speak with Representative EllieKinnaird. We got to talking (mostly of our love for Kinnaird) and I learned that Ed’s partner of 10 years, Tim, is a Canadian citizen. This usually wouldn’t be too terrible, but then I learned that Tim will have to leave the country in August for a year when his visa expires (which actually is terrible).

It’s made worse because Ed would be able to sponsor Tim’s permanent citizenship, but their decade-long relationship is not recognized by the Immigration Department (they’re gay, see).

The Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) is a bill that would recognize their commitment and make it possible for Ed and Tim to stay together here in America, but it’s currently stalled in Congress.

Imagine all the problems you’d have if you had to pack up and leave the country for a year. Tim’s employer won’t be able to leave his job open for that time, and there are no guarantees at all that he’d be able to get it back when he returns. There will be inconveniences when it comes to housing and work. But these are just practical problems compared to the fact that Ed and Tim will be forced to live apart for a year.

Sometimes, when discussing national issues, it’s easier to treat them in the abstract. But here is a concrete example that these issues affect the lives of everyday Americans. A policy from Washington, D.C. will keep apart a couple in Durham, North Carolina.

There are 36,000 same-sex binational couples in America, according to the Census. That’s a huge number for me. I can’t conceptualize the shared problems of 72,000 people, but I can identify the plight of two, living right over in Durham.

It feels so unfair because straight couples can just get married and sponsor their partner for citizenship, but this isn’t an option for Ed and Tim. Their journey is going to include a year where they can’t be together in their country of choice, and plenty of hoops to jump through after that. They deserve all the rights and protection afforded to their straight neighbors, but their relationship is not considered by the immigration authorities.

You can find more information on the Facebook group dedicated to the couple, Keep Ed and Tim Together- Fight Immigration Injustice or at Immigration Equality.
Call the Capitol Switchboard at (202)224-3121, ask to speak with your Senators and Representative, and let them know you support Immigration Equality and the UAFA.

Monday, June 28, 2010

We Are Family ... Under the FMLA

(Thanks to ENC Communication Intern Matthew McGibney.)

There’s been another recent step in the right direction from Washington, where the Labor Department extended the Family and Medical Leave Act to gay couples.

The 1993 law allows workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year to take care of themselves or their families, but it had only been applied to straight couples.

The Labor Department said last week it interprets the Family and Medical Leave Act to allow an employee to take leave to care for any child for whom that employee is the primary caregiver, “regardless of the legal or biological relationship.” This means it now applies to gay couples. This is the latest in a series of small administrative steps the Obama administration has taken to be more LGBT-inclusive.

The FMLA covers all public employers, as well as private employers with at least 50 employees. It was designed to help workers balance their work and family lives by giving them some unpaid time off to deal with family or personal emergencies.

While this new policy will be good for gay employees, there are also questions about its effectiveness. This is not an act of Congress, and a less friendly administration in the future could easily overturn the provision. It would take a permanent alteration to the law to secure these rights more permanently.

Chris Geidner, a writer for MetroWeekly, points out another issue with the policy. According to his article, it “will be limited to an expansion related to individuals who are the non-legal, non biological parents of their same-sex partner's children.” This would not include legally-recognized gay couples because the so-called Defense of Marriage Act defines “marriage” and “spouse” as between opposite-sex couples, and this policy change would have to be in accordance with federal law.

Geidner continues, “The changes … also would apply if one's partner is having a child that is not the person's child biologically or legally or if a person's same-sex partner is adopting a child and the person, due to state law, doesn't have a legal relationship to that child.”

This is certainly a victory, small though it may be, toward equality. Any advance in equal rights lays the foundation for future successes, hopefully ones more solidly codified in law.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What the activist saw ...

... at last night's LGBT Pride Month reception in the White House. Equality NC's Executive Director Ian Palmquist was in attendance.

You can watch the video here at the White House's website.

Here's the text:

THE PRESIDENT: Hello, hello, hello! (Applause.) Hello, everybody! (Applause.) I was going to say welcome to the White House -- but you guys seem like you feel right at home. (Laughter.) You don't need me to tell you -- it’s the people’s house.

A couple of acknowledgements that I want to make very quickly -- first of all, our Director of the Office of Personnel Management, who has just done an extraordinary job across the government -- give John Berry a big round of applause. (Applause.)

AUDIENCE MEMBER: All right, John.

THE PRESIDENT: All right, John! (Laughter.)

Our chair of the Export/Import Bank, helping to bring jobs here to the United States of America -- Fred Hochberg. (Applause.) Our chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, doing outstanding work each and every day -- Nancy Sutley. Where is she? (Applause.) Nancy is a little vertically challenged, but I see her over there. (Laughter.)

We've got here a trailblazer for federal appointees -- we are so proud of her -- Ms. Roberta Achtenberg is here. Give Roberta a big round of applause. (Applause.) And then I understand we've got a terrific country singer -- Chely Wright is in the house. (Applause.)

In addition -- I know they had to leave because they had votes, but you guys obviously don't have just fiercer warriors on your behalf than a couple of our openly gay and lesbian members of Congress -- Tammy Baldwin and Jared Polis. (Applause.) They are openly terrific. (Laughter.) They do great work.

And it is also great to have so many activists and organizers from around the country -- folks who fight every day for the rights of parents and children and partners and citizens to be treated equally under the law. And so we are very proud of all of you. (Applause.)

Oh, and by the way, the guy standing next to me -- this is Joe Biden. (Applause.) Just because he’s a Phillies fan -- he’s from Delaware. (Laughter.)

Now, look, the fact that we’ve got activists here is important because it’s a reminder that change never comes -- or at least never begins in Washington. It begins with acts of compassion -– and sometimes defiance -– across America. It begins when ordinary people –- out of love for a mother or a father, son or daughter, or husband or wife -– speak out against injustices that have been accepted for too long. And it begins when these impositions of conscience start opening hearts that had been closed, and when we finally see each other’s humanity, whatever our differences.

Now, this struggle is as old as America itself. It’s never been easy. But standing here, I am hopeful. One year ago, in this room, we marked the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall protests. (Applause.) Some of you were here, and you may remember that I pledged then that even at a time when we faced enormous challenges both on the economy and in our foreign policy, that we would not put aside matters of basic equality. And we haven’t.

We’ve got a lot of hard work that we still have to do, but we can already point to extraordinary progress that we’ve made over the past year on behalf of Americans who are gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender.

Just stay with me here for a second. Last year, I met with Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard’s mom, and I promised her that after a decade’s-long struggle, we would pass inclusive hate crimes legislation. I promised that in the name of her son we would ensure that the full might of the law is brought down on those who would attack somebody just because they are gay. And less than six months later, with Judy by my side, we marked the enactment of the Matthew Shepard Act. It’s now the law of the land. (Applause.)

Just a few moments ago, I met with Janice Langbehn and her children. Where did Janice go? There they are right there. And when Janice’s partner of 18 years, Lisa, suddenly collapsed because of an aneurysm, Janice and the couple’s three kids were denied the chance to comfort their partner and their mom -- barred from Lisa’s bedside. It was wrong. It was cruel. And in part because of their story, I instructed my Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, to make sure that any hospital that’s participating in Medicare or Medicaid -– that means most hospitals -- (laughter) -- allow gay and lesbian partners the same privileges and visitation rights as straight partners. (Applause.)

After I issued that memorandum, I called Janice and I told her the news. And before we came out here today, I wanted to make sure that I had followed up -- Secretary Sebelius will officially be proposing this regulation. And I can also announce that the Secretary has sent a letter today asking these hospitals to adopt these changes now -– even before the rule takes effect. (Applause.) Nothing can undo the hurt that her -- that Janice’s family has experienced. And nothing can undo the pain felt by countless others who’ve been through a similar ordeal –- for example, Charlene Strong is here. She lost her wife, Kate Fleming -- and Charlene is here along with Kate’s mom, who said on behalf of all mothers, thank you. Because we think it’s the right thing to do. (Applause.)

In addition, I’ve issued an executive order[SIC]* to extend as many partnership benefits to gay and lesbian federal employees as possible under current law. And I’m going to continue to fight to change the law: to guarantee gay federal employees the exact same benefits as straight employees -– including access to health insurance and retirement plans. (Applause.) And in an announcement today, the Department of Labor made clear that under the Family and Medical Leave Act, same-sex couples –- as well as others raising children -– are to be treated like the caretakers that they are. (Applause.)

Because I believe in committed -- I believe that committed gay and lesbian couples deserve the same rights and responsibilities afforded to any married couple in this country, I have called for Congress to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. (Applause.) We are pushing hard to pass an inclusive employee non-discrimination bill. (Applause.) No one in America should be fired because they’re gay. It’s not right, it’s not who we are as Americans, and we are going to put a stop to it.

And finally, we’re going to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. (Applause.) That is a promise I made as a candidate. It is a promise that I reiterated as President. It’s one that this administration is going to keep. Now, the only way to lock this in -– the only way to get the votes in Congress to roll back this policy -- is if we work with the Pentagon, who are in the midst of two wars.

And that’s why we were gratified to see, for the first time ever, the Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates, testify in favor of repeal. And the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, has repeatedly and passionately argued for allowing gay men and women to serve honestly in the military. (Applause.) We know that forcing gay and lesbian soldiers to live a lie or to leave the military, that doesn’t contribute to our security -- it harms our security.

And thanks to Patrick Murphy and others, for the first time in history, the House has passed a repeal that would allow gay men and women to openly serve in our armed forces. And this repeal is authored so that the Pentagon can complete its review of the policy -- which is critical, by the way, not only to passage, but it’s also critical to making sure that the change is accepted and implemented effectively. In the Senate, the Armed Services Committee has approved repeal for the first time, and the full body is poised to vote soon.

So here’s the bottom line: We have never been closer to ending this discriminatory policy. And I’m going to keep on fighting until that bill is on my desk and I can sign it. (Applause.)

Of course, ultimately, change is about more than just policies in our government. And that’s why I want to close by recognizing all the young people who are here -– I had a chance to take a bunch of pictures with them, just really impressive folks who are advocating on their behalf. I know there are some in the audience who have experienced pain in their lives, who at times have been -- felt like outcasts, who have been scorned or bullied, and I know that there are families here on behalf of loved ones who are no longer with us, some in part because of the particularly difficult challenges that gay men and women still face.

This is a reminder that we all have an obligation to ensure that no young person is ever made to feel worthless or alone -- ever. Now, at the same time, I think there’s plenty of reason to have some hope for many of the young people including those who are here today. They’ve shown incredible courage and incredible integrity -- standing up for who they are. They’ve refused to be anything less than themselves.

And we all remember being young -- sort of. (Laughter.) But it’s not easy. It’s not easy standing up all the time and being who you are. But they're showing us the way forward. These young people are helping to build a more perfect union, a nation where all of us are equal; each of us is free to pursue our own versions of happiness.

And I believe because of them that the future is bright. It’s certainly bright for them. Of course, it does depend on all of us. It depends on the efforts of government and the activism of ordinary citizens like yourselves. It depends on the love of families and the support of communities. And I want you all to know that as this work continues, I’m going to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you, fighting by your side every step of the way. (Applause.)

So, thank you. God bless you. God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)

Monday, June 21, 2010

In the News: Ian and the White House's LGBT Reception

Equality NC's own Ian Palmquist is quoted in The Washington Blade's article, "Invitees hopeful for White House’s Pride reception."

Domestic Violence: Equal Under The Law

There was good news from Washington recently as the Justice Department determined that the criminal provisions in the Violence Against Women Act apply equally to gay couples.

The decision was articulated in a memorandum by David J. Barron, an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department. Barron decided that “the text, relevant case law and legislative history” support the conclusion that the law applies “when the offender and the victim are the same sex.” The act also uses gender-neutral language, referring to “another person” instead of “a woman.”

Basically the Justice Department decided that protections in the act, such as the provisions against stalking and domestic violence, apply to gay couples as well as straight couples. The memo gives guidance to federal prosecutors across the country, who will be able to apply the Violence Against Women Act to incidents of same-sex relationship violence.

The clarification to the act comes as efforts to legalize marriage equality for same-sex couples continue in the capital. Though there has been no response from social conservative groups, it is noteworthy that a member of the Justice Department from Bush administration corroborates Barron’s analysis in The New York Times as correct as a matter of statutory interpretation.

Congress first passed the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. Among other things, its provisions made it a federal crime to cross state lines with the intent of committing domestic violence, stalking, or violating a protection order. Lawmakers have since expanded the act several times.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bad Blood - Gay Donor Ban Continues

(Thanks to ENC Communication Intern Matthew McGibney.)

Despite calls from legislators to the contrary, a committee of the Department of Health and Human Services voted 9-6 last week to continue banning gay men from donating blood.

A repeal of the ban seemed a distinct possibility leading up to the vote, especially after a group of legislators, led by Massachusetts senator John Kerry and Illinois representative Mike Quigley, issued a statement calling for a change to the policy. Senator Kerry spoke before the Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability, along with representatives of the American Red Cross, the American Association of Blood Banks, and America’s Blood Centers. These groups called the policy “scientifically and medically unwarranted,” and in need of a change.

The current policy stems more from prejudice rather than scientific fact.

For those who don’t know, here’s the rule: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) bars particular groups from giving blood, in this case in an attempt to limit the spread of the HIV virus. The FDA bans any man who has had sex with a man since 1977 from donating, regardless of their HIV status. The policy was formulated in the 1980s, as the HIV/AIDS crisis was developing the United States and solid scientific information on its spread was limited (back in the bad-old days where AIDS was falsely considered a “gay disease”).

It is now 2010, and we know that contracting HIV is not limited to gay men. The FDA allows straight men and women who have had sexual contact with an HIV-positive partner to give blood after a year-long waiting period, while a married, monogamous, HIV-negative gay couple would be forbidden for life.

That’s worth repeating: The FDA thinks just being gay is more likely to make someone contract HIV than actually having sex with an HIV-positive person would.

Every two seconds, someone in the United States needs a blood transfusion, according to the Red Cross. Yet current regulations prohibit gay men from donating blood based on decades-old stereotypes. Blood banks are in constant need of donors, but the FDA is blocking access to a potential donor pool against the advice of those on the front lines.

The committee did call the guidelines “suboptimal” and recommended changes based on high-risk and low-risk groups of gay men. Why such a discriminatory policy, lacking in a scientific justification, is allowed to exist at all is another question altogether.

By failing to use facts to evaluate blood donations in efforts to reduce the danger of folks becoming HIV+, the FDA gets a grade of F-.

Monday, June 14, 2010

UNCW Pride Shouts Out to ENC

Check out UNCW's PRIDEBlog. They're doing 30 days of Pride, listing things to be proud of, and take a look at:

12. That We've Got Equality NC

Thanks, UNCW Pride, and right back at you!

"PRIDE is a UNCW student organization dedicated to the recognition of students, faculty, and staff who have individual and unique personalities and would like to discuss current social issues. We primarily deal with issues concerning lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer and allied (LGBTIQA) communities."

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Pride In Executive Action

(Thanks to ENC Communication Intern Matthew McGibney.)

Last week, President Obama marked the beginning of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month with an executive proclamation, and this week he invited our very own Ian Palmquist to a White House reception in honor of the month.

While it is up for debate whether we’ve seen the “fierce advocate” we were promised on the campaign trail, President Obama has taken some concrete steps for LGBT rights, and Pride Month gives us a great chance to review them.

In his proclamation, President Obama pointed to the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expands the federal hate-crimes law to include provisions for sexual orientation and gender identity.

He also mentioned the elimination of the HIV entry ban and his renewal of the Ryan White CARE Act, which supports around 500,000 people with HIV/AIDS each year nationally. The CARE Act is especially important here in NC because it provides funding for our AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which is in some serious trouble.

President Obama released a presidential memorandum expanding the hospital visitation rights of LGBT patients, citing a policy that we, Equality NC, pushed for and got passed here in North Carolina. (Who said local politics can't make a difference?)

There’s still much more he can do on a national level. In the proclamation, he spoke in support of LGBT adoption rights, ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and repealing the Defense of Marriage Act.

While the DADT repeal process has garnered allegations of stalling and the president has come out against full same-sex marriage rights, I'm hopeful that his presidency will continue the march toward equality.

Of course, he won’t be able to lead that particular parade by himself. You can contact your U.S. Senator (Republican Richard Burr at (202) 224-3154 and Democrat Kay Hagan at (202) 224-6342) and ask them to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and repeal DADT, two issues currently on the agenda.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Matter of Life & Death

I just had an op-ed posted on NC Policy Watch and the Carroboro Citizen and wanted to share it with you.

Here's the post:

For years, North Carolina's AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) had the most restrictive eligibility level in the nation. This critical program is designed to make sure that low-income people living with HIV get the medicine they need to stay healthy and significantly reduce the risk of transmission.

A few years ago, the state was actually telling people who made $14,000 a year that they should buy their own AIDS medicines, which cost $12,000 or more every year. People were literally choosing between rent, food, and medicine.

Fortunately the legislature took action in 2006 and 2008 to increase the eligibility level to the national standard of 300 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. Since that time, the program has served hundreds of people and has been something our state can be proud of.

This program isn't something that folks stay on forever. When people are on today's AIDS drugs, they can live healthy and productive lives. They often get jobs with insurance that allow them to get off the program.

When people aren't able to get these medicines, the outcomes are very different. Their viral loads are much higher, making the risk of transmission much greater. Often, they're too sick to work, driving them deeper into poverty. And people die unnecessarily.

ADAP has been working and preventing those deaths, but in February the program closed to new enrollment due to increased enrollment and lack of funding.

In just three months since the program closed, 481 eligible people have been put on a waiting list and turned away from the program. That's by far the largest waiting list of any state in the country, and there are more people added every week.

What does that mean? It means a young person who just tested positive can't access the program. Testing programs lose their impact if clinics can't connect their low-income patients with care.

It means that a worker who lost her job-and her health insurance-due to the economic downturn may have to go off of the medicines that have been keeping her healthy. That doesn't just put her health at risk, it can create drug-resistant strains of the virus that add to the public health crisis in our state.

It means that a kid who was born with HIV loses access to the drugs that have kept him alive his entire life the day he become an adult and ages out of Medicaid.

The state cannot continue to risk the lives and health of its citizens by turning people away from this critical program.

Fortunately, Governor Perdue took an important step by seeking an additional $14 million in state funds to re-open ADAP to the lowest-income patients. That's movement in the right direction, but it's not enough to keep the program open throughout the upcoming fiscal year.

The legislature must take the Governor's proposal and increase it to at least $17.7 million to allow the program to reopen and remain open to serve low-income North Carolinians who need access to these drugs. Even with such a boost, ADAP's eligibility level would fall back to the shockingly low level it was a few years ago: 125 percent of Federal Poverty Level.

Budget writers face tough decisions this year, and many valuable programs that make our state a better place will be on the chopping block. None of us want to take away from other important efforts to fund this or that. But when legislators are weighing how to allocate health and human services funding, fully funding programs like ADAP that are literally a matter of life and death should be their first priority.

Ian Palmquist is Co-Chair of the North Carolina AIDS Action Network and Executive Director ofEquality North Carolina.