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Real-world discrimination hits home; report outlines just how far we are from LGBT equality

The Human Rights Campaign, Log Cabin Republicans, the Movement Advancement Project, Stonewall Democrats and the Victory Fund has released An Ally’s Guide to Issues Facing LGBT Americans, a primer introducing the major areas in which unfair laws and stigma create extra burdens for LGBT Americans. And I personally know all too well what that looks like.

I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with straight allies that reveal just how little they know about the discrimination that still exists against their LGBT neighbors. Much of the high-profile conversations they know about relate to the right to marry, but they are, almost without exception, completely unaware that in 29 states, including North Carolina, where I live, you can be fired for your sexual orientation or gender identity.

It’s a wonderful abstraction to have the President’s (and Democratic Party’s) open support for marriage equality, don’t get me wrong. The Dems congregated in Charlotte, holding a convention that had the highest number of LGBT delegates and participants on record. But LGBT leaders packed their bags, many of them returning to Blue environs, leaving LGBT North Carolinians without any basic civil rights that are taken for granted by recognized protected classes and heterosexual couples.

Many LGBT people experience discrimination when just going about their daily activities–whether eating at a restaurant with their families or friends, trying to obtain safe, clean housing or applying for a loan. Contrary to popular belief, federal legislation does not protect LGBT people from discrimination in housing, public accommodations, credit or employment. LGBT people also lack such protections in most states. LGBT workers often cannot extend their health insurance coverage to their partners or children. Without family and marriage tax deductions, LGBT families pay additional taxes but have access to fewer benefits like Social Security survivor benefits. Due to these and myriad other inequalities, LGBT people are more likely to live in poverty and suffer from health disparities.

The bottom line is that in these states, the right to marry one’s same-sex partner is not exactly the highest priority in the daily lives of LGBTs if the states have already passed anti-LGBT marriage amendments, and there are no employment protections in state law. Marriage is critical for our civil equality, but it’s not going to happen in these states until the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates the marriage bans on the books.

An Ally’s Guide to Issues Facing LGBT Americans” is a great resource that shows just how far we still have to go in these areas. As I mentioned above, even with all of the progress to date, this map of the U.S. tells a sad tale of discrimination that needs to be addressed by passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).

Just a few of the areas outlined in the report where change is needed:

  • Fair and Inclusive Workplaces
  • Access to Workplace Benefits
  • Access to Competent and Welcoming Health Care Providers
  • Access to Identity Documents Needed for Daily Living
  • Securing Legal Ties between Parents and Children
  • Caring for a Sick Partner or Child
  • The Ability to Be Safe in Our Communities

How it hits home for my family

While I work for a private institution that extends employment protections to cover sexual orientation and gender identity (and offers same-sex spousal equivalent benefits), my spouse, who works for the state, does not. My recent health crisis — it’s likely that I will face spinal surgery in the near future — has brought it home just how cruel a burden this discrimination is to same-sex couples in states that do not recognize their legal marriages (we married in Canada) and therefore do not offer partner benefits that heterosexual couples take for granted.  From the report:

Even when LGBT people and their families can obtain health insurance, they may still face inhospitable health care environments. Some professional healthcare staff, including physicians, counselors, and receptionists, are hostile or unwilling to work with LGBT people, while others are not trained to do so. And while federal regulations require hospitals participating in Medicare and Medicaid to prohibit discrimination in visitation based on sexual orientation and gender identity, LGBT people still may face refusals to allow partners and children to visit in other facilities, such as nursing homes and private hospitals.

Caring for a Sick Partner or Child

Federal and state laws make it possible for many employees to take time from work to care for a sick spouse, child or parent. Because the relationships of same-sex couples are not recognized by the federal government or by the majority of states, an LGBT employee cannot take job-protected leave from work to care for a same-sex spouse or partner under the Family and Medical Leave Act. A recent clarification of the law by the Department of Labor allows LGBT parents to take job-protected, unpaid time off from work to care for a child even if they are not recognized as the legal parent of that child.

Passage of relationship recognition at the state level and legislation such as the Family and Medical Leave Inclusion Act would ensure that LGBT couples can make medical decisions and take time off to take care of an ill family member.

That’s right — my wife cannot take advantage of FMLA to care for me when I need to convalesce for an extended period of time after a surgery. We are strangers in the eyes of NC law. Many, many allies do not know this discrimination is legal. From NC state FMLA policy:

Spouse – A husband or wife recognized by the State of North Carolina.

Amendment One, passed in May of this year, ensures that our relationship will never be recognized by the state. I, and many people fought mightily to turn this hateful ballot initiative back at the polls, but we failed — and the fallout stains our great state, and now fails me in a time of need.

All of that LGBT celebration in Charlotte was muted here in the trenches of real life.

My state tax dollars fund institutionalized discrimination. The sad irony is that if the roles were reversed, I could take FMLA because my employer has chosen to extend the definition of spouse to include same-sex committed relationships/marriages.

Sen. Richard Durbin’s (D-IL) bill to amend the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 adds language “to permit leave to care for a same-sex spouse, domestic partner, parent-in-law, adult child, sibling, grandchild, or grandparent who has a serious health condition.”

The small silver lining is that I’m happy to report that we’ve never faced the direct discrimination described in the first paragraph of the excerpt regarding refusal of a medical facility or hospital to recognize a partner’s status as my health care proxy. But what if I was in some small town facility that employed homophobes willing to buck the law in an emergency situation? That is the reality in many places around the country. Take the case of Terri-Ann Simonelli, who lives with her legal domestic partner in Nevada.

One of the worst days of my life was the day my partner of six years, Brittney, checked into the Spring Valley Hospital with complications in her pregnancy. As her legal domestic partner in the state of Nevada, I was there to support her, and was prepared to make any necessary medical decisions if she suffered unforeseen problems.

But despite being in a legal, state-recognized domestic partnership, we were told that without a power of attorney, I wouldn’t be able to make any medical decisions for my family. According to a hospital employee, that was their policy.

Same-sex couples have to jump through all sorts of legal hoops and arrange and pay for legal services to cobble together paperwork no married couple has to do — and it can still be challenged in a time of need.

It does get weary hearing flip comments from folks like:

  • “You should just move to _____ (a Blue state),” or
  • “You have to be patient, look at how far this President has brought LGBT rights,” or
  • “This is an election about more important issues like ___ (jobs, international torture policy, corruption, etc.).”

That’s all well and good, and conveniently abstract. I’m a) not in any position to quit my job, sell our house and move at this moment, given my health, b) I realize positive change has occurred under this administration, and c) who said any other issue is not important?

The fact is that, in a 24 hour news cycle/Twitterized world, most of us are eager to view these political footballs in the abstract, not attached to real lives and real people who are hurt, lose their jobs, or killed. My discussing it here just makes it more uncomfortable because it’s not a debate or a barb, or a petition campaign, it’s reality — our reality in 2012.

We have a long way to go, and do we have the information to make good decisions about our vote. It’s why this election matters – the choices are not the same, it’s why people have to turn out to elect pro-equality candidates all the way down the ticket. Change can and does occur at the state and local levels, and sitting out any election is a mistake. Your vote does count. Too many allies (and LGBTs, quite frankly) are not informed enough about what is at stake.

This guide is worth the click to learn more.

* MRI results in – not good news; my spine is f’d up

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding