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With National Legislation Stalled, LGBT Rights Advance at Local Level


To commemorate the first day of legal same-sex marriage in New York Niagara Falls was lit-up with rainbow colored lights.

CREDIT: Flickr / Mykelle Nicole

In the absence of federal legislation granting  the right to marry to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, attention around the country is focused on the successful legalization of same-sex marriage in New York and the coalition-building that made it possible.

But in states where the political groundwork does not yet exist for a New York-style bill, advocates for LGBT rights are directing their efforts toward a more piecemeal town-by-town approach, according to a Campus Progress survey of twelve state equality coalitions.

The local campaigns being waged by these equality organizations reveal that the scope of issues affecting LGBT Americans—and the political battles being fought over them—extend far beyond  marriage equality and the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. They include laws to prevent employment discrimination, extend health care benefits to domestic partners, and provide paid sick leave to workers in majority-LGBT industries.

Non-Discrimination Ordinances

On June 21, the City Council of Bethlehem, Pa., adopted an ordinance protecting LGBT residents from discrimination in employment, schools, housing, and public accommodations. Bethlehem is the 21stcommunity in Pennsylvania to pass a non-discrimination ordinance.

At least 37 similar ordinances have been passed or are pending in cities across the country. They include non-discrimination laws adopted in Richland, S.C.; Salt Lake, City, Utah; and a struggling campaign in Berea, Ky.

Federal legislators have tried for years to add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under federal non-discrimination law. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), first introduced to Congress in 1994, has 154 cosponsors in the current legislative session. In 2007, ENDA passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 235-184, but only after gender identity protections were dropped from the approved version of the bill. The revised ENDA was denounced by many LGBT advocates as an abandonment of transgender Americans for the sake of political convenience.  (As recent surveys have found, 90percent of transgender individuals have encountered some form of harassment or mistreatment on the job).A rift developed between grassroots activists and the Human Rights Campaign, the large LGBT advocacy organization that lent its approval to the removal of gender identity protections. The splintered coalition has since been unable to generate the political will for ENDA.

In the meantime, state equality coalitions see value in local and statewide non-discrimination laws. Such ordinances “provide immediate legal protection to people in those areas in the absence of federal protection,” said Ed Mullen, the Executive Director of Equality Ohio. “As more people are protected on local and statewide levels, providing uniform federal protection becomes the next logical step." 

Not all campaigns for the ordinances have been successful. On June 15, the City Council of Holland, Mich., rejected a proposed inclusion of gender identity and sexual orientation in the city’s equal employment opportunity policy by a 5-4 vote. Intense lobbying by the American Family Association, a national anti-gay organization, preceded the vote.

In a letter to the Holland City Council, AFA Michigan President Gary Glenn compared homosexuality to a smoking addiction and claimed that passage of the ordinance would itself discriminate against the Boy Scouts, Catholic Charities, and the Salvation Army. Those organizations currently refuse services to LGBT Americans under religious objections. Glenn cited as an example Philadelphia’s decision to evict a local Boy Scout troop from offices in a city park. But in that case, Philadelphia taxpayers were effectively subsidizing the troop’s rejection of LGBT scouts to the tune of $200,000 a year, as they had previously occupied those offices rent-free.  

The AFA has pledged financial support to any candidates who run against the four councilors who cast votes for the Holland ordinance. Two challengers have already filed petitions.

Domestic Partner Registries

Meanwhile, another fight is brewing in Orlando, Fla., over the adoption of a domestic partner registry.

The registries, which are pending in at least seven cities nationwide, do not grant a range of legal rights like a civil union. Their main use is as a formal recognition of same-sex relationships—one that can prove important as LGBT couples navigate their lives together. Adults who pick kids up at school are often required to show documentation of their relation to the child and medical visits require similar proof.

Joyce Ducas, one of the many LGBT residents of Central Florida, was recently profiled by the Orlando Sentinel. When her partner Claudia Asbury passed away after suffering from lymphoma, Ducas found herself shut out of the handling of many of Asbury’s final affairs:

"I was being told, 'You don't count.' It was so horrible," said Ducas, 61, a clinical psychologist. "You're at the pinnacle of this emotional experience, and to have to go through all of that on top of it. It was a nightmare."

Some opponents of the registries argue that proper estate planning and power-of-attorney documents would achieve the same goal and not require city governments to intervene. But as Ducas learned, possession of power-of-attorney documents does not guarantee that the process of handling a partner or child’s legal affairs will be easy. She had them at the time of Asbury’s death. Obtaining the documents also requires an investment of time and money that many LGBT Americans—especially young ones—cannot afford.

Buddy Dyer, the mayor of Orlando, is pursuing a joint registry with Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs. If adopted, the registry would apply countywide, meaning LGBT residents would not have to worry about their relationships going unrecognized outside of Orlando’s city limits.

Further south in Florida, the Fort Lauderdale City Commission voted on July 6 to extend health benefits to the domestic partners of city employees. LGBT couples will have to register their partnership with Broward County government before becoming eligible for the insurance coverage.

Federal Tax Offsets

Even towns in Massachusetts, which has legalized same-sex marriage and enacted a  statewide LGB non-discrimination law, face new dilemmas as LGBT advocates turn their attention to local legislation.

Queer employees of the city of Cambridge, Mass., are entitled to place their spouses on city-provided health insurance. But the Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996, bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages—and the tax benefits that would otherwise go along with them. That restriction has cost Cambridge’s married LGBT couples up to $3,000 per year in taxes on their health benefits, according to the Boston Globe

Since the beginning of July, Cambridge has paid its married LGBT employees a stipend to offset that tax. The total cost to the city of covering its 22 eligible workers will amount to $33,000 a year, according to officials.

In a city as socially liberal as Cambridge, that’s a small price to pay.  The measure will likely generate some controversy, though, if it is introduced in more conservative towns throughout the nation. There is already talk of proposing a similar measure in Boulder, Colo.

Sam Menefee-Libey is the LGBTQ Advocate with Campus Progress.

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