Thursday, May 28, 2009

Human Rights Campaign Applauds Extension of Benefits to Domestic Partners of Foreign Service Officers

Human Rights Campaign Applauds Extension of Benefits to Domestic Partners of Foreign Service Officers

Multiple reports that State Department will extend travel, training and other benefits to partners.

Washington – The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights organization, today lauded State Department plans, reported in multiple media outlets, to extend a number of important benefits to the domestic partners of Foreign Service officers. According to press reports, among the benefits that will be extended to partners of Foreign Service officers are travel to and from overseas posts, shipments of household effects, visas and diplomatic passports, emergency travel to visit ill or injured partners, and evacuation in case of a security emergency or medical necessity. This action does not, however, make health insurance, retirement and numerous other benefits available to domestic partners of Foreign Service officers or any other federal workers.

“This is a remedy that is long overdue. For too many years, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Foreign Service officers have been forced to choose between serving their country and protecting their families,” said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese. “We thank President Obama and Secretary Clinton for their leadership in taking this important step and look forward to working with the Administration to extend further protections and benefits to LGBT Americans. In addition, we thank the members of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA) for their tireless efforts within the State Department and other agencies on behalf of LGBT people. We particularly thank former Ambassador Michael Guest, who left the Foreign Service after 26 years to protest these inequalities, for his service to our country and his tremendous leadership in advocating for equality.”

Alongside other organizations, Human Rights Campaign has been advocating for the extension of these important benefits for Foreign Service officers. After the November election, HRC issued its “Blueprint for Positive Change,” a series of more than 70 recommendations to the Obama Administration on how to improve the lives of LGBT people through executive action, which included extending the travel, training and other benefits described in the memorandum. Working with GLIFFA and the Council for Global Equality, HRC lobbied congressional committees to ask State Department officials about the extension of these benefits and to include them in key legislation governing the State Department.

In addition, alongside other Council members, HRC met with State Department representatives earlier this year and emphasized the importance of treating the partners of Foreign Service officers equally. On behalf of all federal workers, HRC continues to advocate for the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act (DPBO), legislation that would extend health, retirement and other benefits to the domestic partners of federal employees; DPBO was reintroduced in the House and Senate last week.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Correcting the Press on the leaked letter

It is all over the media now that the letter leaked to the Advocate is legitimate and means that same-sex partners will take a major step forward in terms of receiving equal treatment with their heterosexual colleagues.

All of the major media outlets have covered it, including:

CNN: Benefits proposed for same-sex partners of U.S. diplomats

NYTimes: Diplomats’ Same-Sex Partners to Get Benefits

and the Washington Post: State Dept. Plan Would Extend Benefits to Same Sex Partners

All of this coverage is excellent and I sincerely hope that the letter is released officially and that the promises made in this letter are kept.

But all of these reports make several errors.

First, these benefits are for all declared domestic partners and their children. Same-sex or opposite-sex. The letter clearly states this.

Second, this is NOT full equality. It does address everything that the Secretary can do on her own. But it does not address health insurance, and issue of major concern, not pensions, just to name two issues. While this would be a major step forward, there is still much work to be done. But most of that work will now be in the hands of OPM and Congress. The Secretary, if she implements these measures, will have kept faith with those in the LGBT community who have always supported her.

Finally, there is a major error in who released the letter. No member of the GLIFAA board received this letter or any memo before it appeared in the press. No member of the GLIFAA board even saw this letter before it appeared in the Advocate. Those claims, started by the Associated Press and picked up by most major media, are simply false.

I don't know who leaked it nor what their intentions were. I hope they were good, but you can never really be certain. I hope there is no backlash. And mostly, I hope they implement these changes and finally begin to address the inequities facing LGBT Foreign Service Families who are dedicating their lives to the service of our country.

It does make me even prouder to serve.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Advocate: Clinton Ready For Equal Treatment at State?

This is the first I have seen of this. All I can say is Kerry clearly has better sources in the Department than I do! And if it is true, wow! I'm an employee for life!

Clinton Ready For Equal Treatment at State?

By Kerry Eleveld

The Advocate has obtained a draft of a letter from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to employees of the State Department that details her intentions to extend certain benefits to same-sex partners of foreign service officers posted abroad.

“Historically, domestic partners of Foreign Service members have not been provided the same training, benefits, allowances, and protections that other family members receive. These inequities are unfair and must end. Providing training, medical care and other benefits to domestic partners promote the cohesiveness, safety and effectiveness of our Posts abroad,” says the letter.

The letter explains that the department will be “exercising its inherent authority to change its regulations in the Foreign Affairs Manual and Department of State Standardized Regulations” in order to allow domestic partners of foreign service personnel to qualify as family members. “Where appropriate, this extension of benefits and allowances will apply to the children of domestic partners as well.”

Providing these benefits to all employees, notes the letter, will help the department “attract and retain personnel in a competitive environment where domestic partner benefits and allowances are increasingly the norm for world-class employers. At bottom, the Department will provide these benefits for both opposite-sex and same-sex domestic partners because it is the right thing to do.”

The letter appears to be the culmination of Secretary Clinton's work with LGBT employee groups at the State Department. A source familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the letter was drafted by senior officials at the department and represents the Secretary’s thinking on the issue. The letter currently awaits final approval from senior government lawyers.

The draft is consistent with statements made this week by California Congressman Howard Berman that Secretary Clinton is committed to equalizing the treatment of gay employees of the State Department and that he anticipated an announcement on the matter soon.

Full text of the letter is below:

For Review

Today, I am pleased to announce that the Department of State will be extending a number of benefits and allowances to domestic partners of members of the Foreign Service assigned abroad.

While a career in the Foreign Service is rewarding, the demands to serve our country both at home and abroad also require great sacrifice by our Foreign Service personnel and their families as well. Family members often must uproot their lives, endure hardship conditions, and put their own careers on hold. Like all families, our Foreign Service families come in different configurations; all are part of the common fabric of our Post communities abroad.

Historically, domestic partners of Foreign Service members have not been provided the same training, benefits, allowances, and protections that other family members receive. These inequities are unfair and must end. Providing training, medical care and other benefits to domestic partners promote the cohesiveness, safety and effectiveness of our Posts abroad. It will also help the Department attract and retain personnel in a competitive environment where domestic partner benefits and allowances are increasingly the norm for world-class employers. At bottom, the Department will provide these benefits for both opposite-sex and same-sex domestic partners because it is the right thing to do.

The Department will be exercising its inherent authority to change its regulations in the Foreign Affairs Manual and Department of State Standardized Regulations to allow the domestic partners of Department Foreign Service personnel to qualify as family members for a variety of benefits and allowances. Where appropriate, this extension of benefits and allowances will apply to the children of domestic partners as well. To qualify for these benefits and allowances, an employee must file an affidavit identifying his or her domestic partner and certifying to certain eligibility requirements that will be set forth in the FAM.

The Department of State intends to provide the following additional benefits and allowances for declared domestic partners of eligible employees serving overseas:

· Diplomatic passports,
· Inclusion on employee travel orders to and from posts abroad,
· Shipment of household effects,
· Inclusion in family size calculations for the purpose of making housing allocations,
· Family member preference for employment at posts abroad,
· Use of medical facilities at posts abroad,
· Medical evacuation from posts abroad,
· Emergency travel for the partners to visit gravely ill or injured employees,
· Inclusion as family members for emergency evacuation from posts abroad,
· Subsistence payments related to emergency evacuation from posts abroad,
· Inclusion in calculations of payments of overseas differentials and allowances (e.g., payment for quarters, cost of living, and other allowances),
· Representation expenses, and;
· Training at the Foreign Service Institute.

The Department also will work with our inter-agency partners and host country governments to provide domestic partners with diplomatic visas, appropriate diplomatic and consular privileges and immunities, and authorization to work in the local economy abroad.

We look forward to implementing these changes.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Advocate: Congressman: White House LGBT Announcements Imminent

Congressman: White House LGBT Announcements Imminent
By Kerry Eleveld

California representative Howard Berman predicted in an interview Thursday that the White House would be presenting new information regarding LGBT policies sometime before annual pride celebrations in June.

“I think the White House is preparing to make an announcement on a number of issues,” he said, declining to go into detail. “I’m predicting here, not informing, that by the Stonewall anniversary we will have a very clear picture of what the administration is doing.”

Congressman Berman, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, foreshadowed the announcements during an interview about the Foreign Affairs authorization bill that passed out of his committee Wednesday and will provide new diplomatic and development resources for the State Department.

While the bill included many positive provisions to help address LGBT issues abroad, one section that was struck from the legislation would have ended the practice of excluding domestic partners of foreign service officers from benefits routinely provided to spouses and children, such as access to emergency evacuation support, training and language classes, health care and regional medical units, employment opportunities, consulate services, and visa and relocation support.

Berman said he agreed to remove that section of the bill based on his understanding that both the Obama administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were committed to equalizing treatment for same-sex partners in the very near future. He suggested that declaration might be part of a greater package of policy pronouncements from the White House.

“My expectation with respect to the issues that were originally part of my bill, is that the State Department and the secretary will provide the kinds of benefits that I sought,” he said, adding that he was committed to ending discrimination against gay and lesbian foreign service officers. “If I’m wrong, which I don’t think I am, we still have a ways to go on this bill and we can reverse course.”

Berman referenced a quote from Michael Guest, a gay ambassador who finally resigned in 2007 over the State Department’s discriminatory practices, in which Guest said, “Under current practices, we’re kinder to family pets of foreign service officers than we are to gay partners.” That’s true, Berman said, noting that the country pays for the transportation costs of pets to and from foreign posts and provides evacuation services for pets.

What did make the bill were a series of policies that will empower the State Department to: track violence and discrimination against LGBT people that would be deemed illegal in the United States; encourage and persuade governments of other countries to repeal or reform any laws that criminalize homosexuality or restrict fundamental freedoms of gay individuals or organizations; include in annual human rights reports documentation of violence or discrimination against people based on their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

Representative Berman said some Republican congressmen like Chris Smith and Mike Pence opposed those inclusions in the bill.

“They were torn and conflicted, almost anguished in the debate,” said Berman, “because I don’t think they can or do justify violence against people because of their sexual orientation and I think they no longer seek to defend criminalization of homosexual conduct…. And yet, [those protections are] what they sought to eliminate with their amendments.”

Berman said he was hopeful the bill would reach the House floor for consideration by early June.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Berman: Gay US diplomats to get equal benefits

Personally, I think this is a horrible idea. Regardless of whether or not you can trust that the Secretary will follow through (and I do believe she wants to), by removing it from the legislation, you make it that much easier for a future Secretary to roll back our rights.

Gay US diplomats to get equal benefits: lawmaker

WASHINGTON (AFP) — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has promised to provide equal benefits to partners of homosexual US diplomats stationed overseas, a congressman said Wednesday.

Howard Berman, head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, had sought to require the State Department to offer benefits such as medical care, transport between postings and security training to partners regardless of sexual orientation.

Berman, in a hearing on funding for the Foreign Service, said he would drop his legislative bid as "it is my expectation, based on very recent conversations, that the Secretary of State will move forward with implementing all of the benefits provided in that provision in the very near future."

The congressman invited to the hearing Michael Guest, the former US ambassador to Romania who in 2007 left the Foreign Service, citing unfair treatment of his partner.

"For 26 years he served our country with distinction and was sadly forced to leave the Foreign Service when he could no longer accept the second-class status accorded his lifetime partner," said Berman, a Democrat from California.

"But I am heartened that soon no more of our best and brightest will be forced to choose between family and country," he said.

The ranking Republican member on the committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, has supported the effort.

Ros-Lehtinen signed a letter to Clinton sent in February by Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin who is openly lesbian, warning the State Department risked losing qualified diplomats unless it provided equality to gay partners.

But another Republican lawmaker criticized a separate part of the bill aimed at promoting gay rights.

The funding bill calls on US diplomats to encourage other countries to revise laws that restrict consensual homosexual relations or limit the freedoms of gay people and groups.

Christopher Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, charged that the bill could force US diplomats to promote policies that go against their religious beliefs.

"Does that make it permissive -- or mandatory -- that they be advocates for the homosexual agenda?" Smith asked.

Under President Barack Obama, the United States has switched gears from the previous George W. Bush administration by supporting a United Nations resolution calling for the global decriminalization of homosexuality.

Homosexuality is punishable by death in seven countries -- Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Digger comments:
And is Christopher Smith saying that he thinks it is acceptable to punish gays with death? It is against his religious beliefs to argue against KILLING gays? And for the record, Christopher Smith spends a lot of time forcing folks in this building to push his religious agenda regardless of their religious beliefs. I believe that makes him a hypocrite.

Right Wing Watch covered the issue, and the Right's response, here.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Same-Sex Partner Benefits on the Way for American Diplomats (maybe)

From UN Dispatch

Same-Sex Partner Benefits on the Way for American Diplomats

Congress has inserted a provision into the State Department authorization budget that would require the State Department to confer the same benefits to same-sex partners as it does to married couples.

Congressman Howard Berman, Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, included the provision in the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 2010 and 2011 (H.R. 2410) to "end the long-standing practice of excluding the committed partners of Foreign Service officers from the benefits routinely provided to the spouses and children of officers serving abroad." The provision now must make its way through the budget process, including the conference committee where many-a-well intentioned proposal hits the chopping block. But in this case, it would be hard to imagine that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is lead by Chairman John Kerry and the moderate republic ranking member Richard Lugar, would do anything to strip out this provision.

This would be progress. For too long, gay and lesbian diplomats have had to chose between their families and their service. "I'm happy that efforts to redress these discriminatory policies are being undertaken," emails Michael Guest a former Foreign Service officer currently affiliated with the Center for Global Equality. "This is all about ensuring the safety, effectiveness and equal workplace conditions for those who serve our country abroad, and for the families who accompany them on those assignments." Amen!

Friday, May 08, 2009

Rip Off The Bandaid

Eugene Robinson in today's Washington Post asks the fair and timely question, where is our "fierce advocate for equality" for the LGBT community? A lot of folks, me included, are wondering the same thing.

MIA On Gay Marriage
By Eugene Robinson

Believe it or not, often I can see the other side of an argument. I know that tough gun control laws save lives and make our communities safer, for example, but I also see clarity in the Second Amendment. I support affirmative action, but I realize that providing opportunity to some worthy individuals can mean denying opportunity to others. Thinking about some issues involves discerning among subtly graded shades of gray.

On some issues, though, I really don't see anything but black and white. Among them is the "question" of granting full equal rights to gay and lesbian Americans, which really isn't a question at all. It's a long-overdue imperative, one that the nation is finally beginning to acknowledge.

Before his inauguration, President Obama called himself a "fierce advocate of equality for gay and lesbian Americans." Now, with the same-sex marriage issue percolating in state after state and with the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy ripe for repeal, it's time for Obama to put some of his political capital where his rhetoric is.

On Wednesday, Maine became the fifth state to legalize gay marriage; similar legislation in New Hampshire has been sent to the governor. Politicians in Washington who want to avoid what they see as a dangerous controversy have a convenient escape: They can say that the marriage issue should be left to the states and that the question of whether a legal gay marriage in one state should be recognized everywhere has already been addressed by Congress and ultimately will be settled by the courts.

But that's a dodge, not a stance. It certainly can't be confused with leadership.

Favoring "civil unions" that accord all the rights and benefits of marriage -- but that withhold the word marriage, and with it, I guess, society's approval -- amounts to another dodge. I'm concerned here with the way the law sees the relationship, not the way any particular church or religious leader sees it; that's for worshipers, clergy and the Almighty to work out. Marriage is not just a sacrament but also a contract, and the contractual aspect is a matter of statute, not scripture.

Obama took the "civil unions" route during last year's campaign and has stuck with it. While I see the political calculation -- that was basically the position of all the major Democratic candidates -- I never understood the logic. If semantics are the only difference between a civil union and a marriage, why go to the trouble of drawing a distinction? If there are genuine differences that the law should recognize, what are they?

It seems to me that equality means equality, and either you're for it or you're not. I believe gay marriage should be legal, and it's hard for me to imagine how any "fierce advocate of equality" could think otherwise.

Obama sensibly advocates the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." He should press the case by publicly reminding opponents of letting gays serve openly in the military that their arguments -- it would hurt morale, damage cohesion and readiness, discourage reenlistment -- are often the same, almost word for word, as the arguments made 60 years ago against racial integration in the armed forces. It was bigotry then, and it's bigotry now.

Obama should also make the obvious case that forcibly discharging capable, fully trained servicemen and servicewomen for being gay, at a time when our overstretched military is fighting two big wars, can only be described as insane.

What the president shouldn't do is stay away from the marriage debate on the grounds that it's not a matter for the federal government. For one thing, he's on record as favoring repeal of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act -- a law that blocked federal recognition of same-sex marriages and relieved states of any obligation to recognize out-of-state gay marriages.

Does Obama's stance in favor of repeal mean that he believes the federal government should recognize same-sex marriages? Does he also believe that, say, the state of Alabama should recognize a gay marriage performed in Iowa? If so, what is the practical difference between this position and just saying in plain language that gay marriages ought to be legal and recognized in all 50 states?

I'm not being unrealistic. I know that public acceptance of homosexuality in this country is still far from universal. But attitudes have changed dramatically -- more than enough for a popular, progressive president to speak loudly and clearly about a matter of fundamental human and civil rights.

Digger comments:
Just this past week, the same-sex spouse of a person serving overseas was initially denied tamaflu, even though folks at post were showing symptoms and so EVERYONE ELSE at the mission was given tamaflu as a precaution. Another person's partner was denied a flu vaccine earlier in the season, even though post historically has ordered more doses than needed and had to throw them away! Once again, this demonstrates the second-class status Foreign Service members of household are forced to endure.

Some of this the Secretary can fix in the stroke of a pen, and she needs to do it sooner rather than later.

But much of it could be handled by our "fierce advocate." My partner had the right idea this morning. Instead of doing things piecemeal, President Obama needs to rip off the bandaid. He needs to do it all at once. Get rid of Don't Ask Don't Tell and DOMA and push for federal marriage all at once. Realistically, our enemies are only going to be able to fight back on one thing effectively, and that will be federal marriage. Then he can offer the compromise of federal civil unions. While that will still violate my freedom of religion (as a member of a mainstream prtestant denomination that recognizes same-sex the government is in the business of decided which of the marriages my church performs it will recognize), at least it will mean I can visit my spouse in the hospital and if god forbid she died, not have to pay inheritance tax on my own propert.

Rip off the bandaid, Mr. President. There is never going to be a better time.

Monday, May 04, 2009

A State Department couple and the debate over federal benefits for same-sex partners of employees

From Government Executive:

FEATURES Foreign & Domestic
By Alyssa Rosenberg

A State Department couple and the debate over federal benefits for same-sex partners of employees.

Five years ago this March, Michelle Schohn joined the Foreign Service.

Diplomacy wasn't her initial field of choice; she already had a job as an archaeologist. But there was one very significant factor influencing her decision to change careers. Schohn's partner, Mary Glantz, already was a member of the Foreign Service. And when Glantz was posted overseas, things got complicated. The State Department classifies the spouses of gay and lesbian employees as "members of household," according them different benefits than heterosexual couples who are legally married.

Members of household are not eligible to participate in special early-round applications for jobs at embassies, as heterosexual spouses can. They cannot be covered by their partners' health insurance, so they are not guaranteed coverage when they go overseas. They do not have access to diplomatic posts' medical facilities. And if posts have to be evacuated, members of household are not guaranteed evacuation pay or subsidies to cover expenses.

"I was in a career I liked very much," says Schohn, now president of the organization Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies. But she was faced with the choice of either going overseas unemployed with her partner and without diplomatic protections, or quitting her job and joining the Foreign Service so she and Glantz could get equal treatment. "I didn't like either option," Schohn says.

She may be one of the few people ever to decide to join the federal government because of the way its employment policies distinguish between straight and gay couples. Often, the policies have the opposite effect. At a September 2008 Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, Frank A. Hartigan, a deputy regional director for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, said if he were starting out in the job market again, he would look outside government for an employer that would allow him to add his partner to his health insurance. Soon, though, Schohn, Hartigan and thousands of other federal employees might not have to make such a choice.

A combination of events - including two court orders from California federal judges, the appointment of an Office of Personnel Management director with a long history of working to change policies that discriminate against gay and lesbian employees, and the inauguration of a president who has voiced support for expanding gay rights - have created a climate favorable to enacting domestic partner benefits for federal employees.

Beyond 'Chuck and Larry'

Every year since 1997, legislation called the Domestic Partner Benefits and Obligations Act has been introduced in Congress.

It would grant the domestic partners and legally married spouses of gay and lesbian federal employees access to benefits ranging from access to health insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program to full participation in relocation programs that are currently available only to married couples. The bill also would require same-sex couples to abide by the rules governing married couples, including nepotism regulations.

Despite the bill's long history, it kicked around from committee to committee without any forward momentum until last year, when Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who introduced the latest iteration in December 2007, held the first hearing on the legislation.

It was a largely tame event, without much in the way of partisan bickering or attempts to score points on either side of the culture war. The lone Republican attendee, Maine Sen. Susan M. Collins, was there to support the bill, and she even suggested broadening it to include heterosexual couples who are not married but live together in committed relationships.

There was little disagreement among the witnesses, four out of five of whom testified in support of the bill. The lone dissent came from OPM.

Howard C. Weizmann, then the deputy director of the agency in the waning months of the Bush administration, said OPM opposed the legislation on the grounds that it would be extremely difficult to determine the validity of relationships between same-sex couples in the absence of standard documentation, such as a marriage license. The risk that couples would commit fraud to get access to federal benefits is "not farfetched," Weizmann said, pointing to I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, a movie about two New York firefighters who fake a domestic partnership to protect their pension benefits.

His choice of examples sparked outrage from gay and lesbian federal government employees.

"Weizmann hadn't done his homework," says Leonard Hirsch, president of Federal GLOBE, the governmentwide affinity group for gay and lesbian employees. "It was a total embarrassment to the United States. That won't happen again."

The Berry Effect

Hirsch's prediction that OPM's reaction to the bill is likely to change is probably on the mark, although it's hard to tell officially, because OPM declined requests to comment for this article. What's certainly true is the next time the agency's representatives come before Congress to discuss the legislation, they will be looking at it from a different perspective.

The handover of the White House from Republicans to Democrats accounts for part of the change. In particular, President Obama's choice for OPM director, John Berry, will bring a new set of experiences and convictions to workforce policy.

Berry, who was confirmed by unanimous consent of the Senate in early April, is the first openly gay agency head in the executive branch. His service as assistant secretary for policy, management and budget at the Interior Department during the Clinton administration provides a blueprint for how he might address issues facing gay and lesbian employees. At Interior, Berry instituted a full review of policies affecting gay workers, resulting in:

* Establishment of a grievance procedure for employees who say they experienced sexual-orientation discrimination.
* Expansion of relocation benefits and counseling services for domestic partners of Interior employees.
* Creation of a liaison to gay and lesbian employees.
* Elimination of a requirement that gay and lesbian applicants for law enforcement positions at the National Park Service undergo background checks.

Berry said at his confirmation hearing that he couldn't comment on specific issues until he was in office, but his expected support for the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act could give the legislation momentum when it is reintroduced in this session of Congress. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., was planning to introduce the bill this spring in the House and Lieberman and Collins are set to push it in the Senate.

External circumstances may encourage the legislators to move quickly. In January and February, two federal judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in California issued separate orders directing the Administrative Office of the United States Courts to process benefits applications for the same-sex partners of two court employees, and to continue to process such applications on a routine basis. OPM has told the office that the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program is not set up to deal with such applications.

One of the judges has retained jurisdiction over his employee's benefits, and said he will issue additional orders to force the processing of benefits forms, setting up a potential clash between the executive and the judiciary branches.
The quickest way to avert that clash, Hirsch says, would be to pass the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act. Then OPM could discuss adding domestic partners with FEHBP providers when it makes its annual round of changes to the program during discussions that take place in the spring and summer.

"It's just simply going through the law and writing the regulations," Hirsch says. "That is normal procedure. It would take six months or so, but hopefully it would immediately impact internally to agencies their understanding of their obligations to [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered] employees."

Model Programs

But agencies and employee groups aren't simply waiting for Congress and the White House to act. Last year, the National Treasury Employees Union and FDIC reached an agreement to create a domestic partnership benefits program at the agency. FDIC is one of only a few agencies where federal unions negotiate pay and benefits issues, rather than simply bargain over working conditions. That created an opportunity for NTEU to push for a program that will allow gay and lesbian FDIC employees to enroll their partners in health, dental, vision and life insurance programs, and to include domestic partners and their children fully in relocation benefits programs.

NTEU president Colleen Kelley credits FDIC chairwoman Sheila Bair, a Republican appointee, with supporting the program, which the labor leader says provides a model for the rest of federal government.

"That's what agencies should follow," she says. "We're in ongoing discussions with the Securities and Exchange Commission. We're pursuing it in every avenue we have."
Other agencies are going through processes similar to the one Berry conducted at Interior in the 1990s. At the State Department, Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies shortly after she took office and promised a review of the policies that affect them and their partners. In February, gay newsmagazine The Advocate reported that Clinton told town hall participants that the review was "on a fast timeline," suggesting that she might change State policy even before Congress acts.

Hirsch says Attorney General Eric Holder is conducting a similar review at the Justice Department. Other agencies could follow suit, indicating they would be ready to implement new benefits quickly if the domestic partnership legislation passes Congress.

Broader Effects

Extending federal benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian employees would make life easier for them. But would such a policy change have broader effects, such as making the government a more attractive place to work, both to potential applicants and current employees?

At Lieberman's hearing last fall, Weizmann said that in the private sector, less than 1 percent of employees at companies that offer domestic partnership benefits actually sign up for them. With such low participation rates, he said, it was a far leap to suggest that implementing such benefits would have any impact on recruitment or retention.

A 2008 report by the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law predicted that 14,436 additional same-sex partners and children of federal employees would sign up for health benefits if the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act passed, increasing benefits spending by $60.4 million annually. The Congressional Budget Office put the price tag at $670 million over 10 years.

But Yvette C. Burton, business development executive at IBM, testified at Lieberman's hearing that domestic partnership benefits weren't simply a way to recruit and retain gay and lesbian employees.

"Like IBM, many companies report that implementation of domestic partnership benefits help to attract and retain crucial talent segments of non- LGBT employees," she said. "These particular candidates have reported that the existence of domestic partnership benefit policies like that at IBM demonstrate that the company truly values and respects all employees, that they protect all employees. . . . This trend is especially prevalent among younger candidates of the workforce, a segment crucial to the future demographics of any sector."

In the short term, the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act would have a big effect on federal employees like Michelle Schohn and Mary Glantz, who continually reassess their decision to stay in government.

"We make decisions on a tour-by-tour basis if we're going to stay in the department," Schohn says. "And we will stay in the department if the department allows us to stay together."

100 Days In, Still No Place At The Table

I have a confession. This blog suffers when I am thinking of leaving the Department and going back to archaeology. And I think of leaving the Department mostly when I am frustrated by the excruciatingly slow progress the Department makes in terms of addressing the inequities facing LGBT Foreign Service families.

This is made worse, not better, by having felt there was hope for change.

On Friday, the Secretary marked her 100th day with the Foreign Affairs Day celebration and Memorial commemoration. Now I know that the 100 days mantra is just a media creation. I get that. But really, it is a means to look at where priorities are in any administration. What do you care about enough to fix immediately.

Honestly, naively, I thought and hoped that the Secretary cared enough about her LGBT employees to do something quickly. We were on the "fast track," she said. She was presented with a letter signed by 2,200 of the foreign affairs community and with documents outlining what steps she could take with a mere stroke of the pen. Steps that weren't taken in the past only because a lack of political will, not because the steps were all that difficult. Recommendations for what she could do were described as being "on her desk" in late March. She has been such a long-time friend to the LGBT community that I really believed that change was imminent. That we had seen the last summer transfer season where gay and lesbian employees would be forced to pay to bring their partner to post so that the partner could live the life of second-class citizenship that is the Member of Household's lot. That the days of the Department paying for the shipment of a pet but not the travel of a partner were over.

But they are not.

One hundred days in and we still do not have a place at the table. One hundred days in and we are still, despite the meetings, the good words, the promise that she knew this was an issue of workplace fairness, second-class employees with second-class spouses. We still receive less pay for the same work than do our heterosexual colleagues, 63% of whom said in a recent survey that they support equal rights for same-sex spouses.

I am still waiting. We are still waiting. We are hoping our service will soon be as valued as our heterosexual colleagues' service. And in the meantime, I, and perhaps the other 700 or so people who have spouses who are only Members of Household and not eligible family members, are left contemplating how long they can remain in a job that forces them to choose their career over their family. You can read about the frustration facing LGBT families in "Speaking Out" in this month's issue of the Foreign Service Journal.

I hope we don't have to wait much longer.