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The Next Frontier: Philanthropy and the LGBT Civil Rights Movement

July 02, 2011

(Michael Seltzer was one of the founders of Funders for Lesbian and Gay Issues. A frequent contributor to PhilanTopic, he wrote about nonprofits and "dirty money" in his last post.)

Gay_rainbow_flag As midnight approached on June 25, a mere three days shy of the 42nd anniversary of the birth of the modern gay rights movement, New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law legislation allowing same-sex marriage. After years of advocacy and hard work, gay marriage was legal in the Empire State.

Of course, a sterling group of nonprofit LGBT and civil rights organizations, including Lambda Legal, Freedom to Marry, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Empire State Pride Agenda, the Human Rights Campaign, and others, worked behind the scenes to bring about this momentous event -- in New York as well as other states. Private foundations such as the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, the Gill Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the Columbia Foundation, and the Overbrook Foundation also played a significant role.

As a result, gay couples in New York now have rights that were previously available only to heterosexual married couples. In terms of public housing regulations, for example, any member of a tenant's family, including a spouse, "shall succeed to the rights of a tenant where the tenant has permanently vacated the housing accommodation and such family member has resided with the tenant in the housing accommodation for a period of no less than two years."

While the significance of the legislation in New York cannot be overstated, much remains to be done. Only five other states (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont) and the District of Columbia have similar laws, while twenty-nine states have on the books legislation that defines marriage as being between a man and woman. Twelve other states have banned recognition of same-sex marriage altogether.

Given the current state of affairs, what can nonprofit organizations, corporations, and foundations do in the years ahead to advance same-sex marriage legislation in other states and help ensure equality under the law for all LGBT Americans? Here are a few ideas:

  • Local and national alliances and collaborations working on behalf of the LGBT community need to be enlarged and expanded. It's time for more nonprofit organizations to get off the sideline and join the decades-long struggle for civil rights and dignity under the law for all, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.
  • More foundations need to find ways, within their existing priorities, to deepen their support for such bridge-building efforts, both in the United States as well as internationally (where so much important work remains to be done). According to long-time LGBT activist Richard Burns, what is particularly important now is to push for full equality for transgender people, and to build an LGBT movement that embraces racial as well as economic justice.
  • In the absence of federal legislation, thousands of rights readily available to heterosexual married couples are still denied to their lesbian and gay counterparts. For example, in many states corporations have taken the lead in ensuring that the partners of LGBT employees are covered by their health insurance plans. But according to a study by the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA's School of Law, only 37 percent of Fortune 1000 companies currently provide domestic-partner benefits. It is time for more nonprofit organizations and foundations to extend this privilege to their employees. Some, such as the Legal Aid Society of New York, have taken the additional step of compensating their LGBT employees for the taxes they are still obligated to pay for health insurance for their partners.
  • According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal ("Gay Couples Losing Perks," June 29, 2011, by Joann S. Lublin and Dana Mattioli), two Fortune 100 companies -- Raytheon and IBM -- have indicated that their New York employees in same-sex relationships have to get married if they want their partners to be covered by the company health plan. Foundations, nonprofits, and other businesses should not follow suit.
  • A national effort is needed to ensure that additional federal statutes that confer benefits, rights, and privileges on married couples are extended to same-sex marriages. A General Accounting Office report released in 1997 and updated in 2004 determined 1,138 federal marriage-related laws relating to such crucial benefits as:
    • the eligibility of spouses and divorced spouses (as well as widows and widowers) for Social Security payments based on marital status rather than individual earnings;
    • immigration priority for spouses of aliens who are granted asylum or receive special status by virtue of their employment in the U.S.;
    • the ability of married couples to file joint tax returns;
    • exemptions from gift and estate taxes for property given or left to a spouse;
    • the eligibility of individuals whose spouses receive Medicaid benefits for medical assistance themselves;
    • the eligibility of veterans' surviving spouses for pensions and preferences in federal employment.

For those of who are gay and lesbian, these are not abstractions. When I recently spent a month in a hospital recovering from a bone-marrow transplant, my medical bills (thankfully) were covered by my partner's employer-provided health insurance. (My partner will have to count his company's contribution to my treatment costs as taxable income, however.)

Those of us lucky enough to live in New York State have witnessed -- and, in many cases, played a role in bringing about -- a significant civil rights victory. But this is not the time to rest on our laurels. We must build on the momentum created by the passage of the Marriage Equality Act and push even harder for equality before the law for all, in every state.

Please think about that as you celebrate the Fourth of July with family and loved ones. And have a happy Fourth!

(Resource: 1,134 Rights and Responsibilities for Marriage Equality in New York State (108 PAGES, pdf), a joint report of the Empire State Pride Foundation and the New York City Bar Association, enumerates the legal rights and duties that New York statutes and regulations confer on married individuals. Created for the express and sole purpose of describing the legal protections created by civil marriage in New York State, the report was current as of June 8, 2007.)

-- Michael Seltzer

Comments

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Excellent Michael! Can always count on you to tweak the conscience of our non-profits. Thanks for the shout out to Legal Aid. It is very important that domestic partnership benefits be coupled with a gross up to cover the increased tax to the employee. Otherwise it will still be in equitable.

What a timely, practical and actionable post. Thanks for these clear directives for how those of us in the nonprofit/foundation community can help protect the equality of LGBT Americans during this historic time.

Michael, thank you once again for highlighting the vital connection between foundations and non profits. These partnerships help build and sustain movements that can ultimately change the world. A terrific read!

Michael, this is great. And you are so right; this is no time to relax, but rather a time to move ahead. New York has provided a strong launch pad. On a personal note, I am not one to necessarily recommend marriage as a lifestyle, but I will continue to fight for the right to “liberty & justice for all,” which includes the right to do so. Equal rights must extend to ALL citizens. All is not an ambiguous word, it is not open to interpretation or debate. There is no room for exclusion. Let me quote Colorado Representative Pat Schroeder who years ago said it best, "The Pledge of Allegiance says ‘. . . . with liberty and justice for all’. What part of ‘all’ don’t you understand?"

Well said Michael. I want to emphasize the importance of this legislation for communities of color and the African American community in particular. We soon forget the lost ground that everyone inherits when members of one community are not lifted up through the advocacy of all communities. I am glad there is a recognition to address the need of racial and economic disparities that are connected to marriage equality. For example, African American lesbians are least prepared for retirement in the African American community in large part because they are the never married "Aunties" and grandmothers who take care of everyone children from broken families, not to mention the lost children in the black community. Yet, there are few if any safety nets to provide for them as critical gatekeepers in the Black community. Marriage equality goes a long way in reverse creating safety nets for African American same gender loving women who wish to marry. According the research, the institution of marriage makes those who participate in it stronger, physically, emotionally, financially and spiritually, it is most successful when it is built on a foundation of love, respect and honesty. To live in a society that presents itself as a great democracy and yet fails to demonstrate the capacity to apply that love, respect and honesty equally to all of it democrats, well...you finish the sentence......

Michael ... thoughtful, passionate and wonderful as always. You are so right. There was much to celebrate in New York, but so much more to be done. Thank you for keeping discussion so brilliantly alive.

Michael - this is a beautifully written and poignant piece. It's wonderful to know that people like you are out there fighting the good fight and making our voices heard! Thank you!

Michael,

Thank you for this piece illustrating the role of foundations and nonprofits in the NY story. It's a side of the story that was not covered by mainstream media. It also illustrates the important partnerships that nonprofits, foundations can create together as well as with politicians and businesses. Social change is personal and collective. And as you point out correctly, there is so much more to be done nationally and internationally.

Perla

Thanks to Perla, Mark, Tom, Michael, Betsy, Sally, Glenda, and Toby for your wonderful comments on this remarkable moment in an important civil rights movement.

We can certainly build on the momentum created by the law requiring marriage equality in New York to eliminate the racial and economic disparities of our time, to borrow an elegant phrase from Toby's superb comment.

Michael

Many thanks for this thoughtful article, Michael. I was especially pleased to see you highlight the very disappointing move of IBM and Raytheon to require their NYS same gender employees to marry in order to keep employer-sponsored health benefits. That is premature, to say the least, and if done at all should not be required until there is federal recognition of equal marriage rights.

Can you imagine marrying in New York and then being denied access to your hospitalized spouse because s/he had an accident while on a work assignment in, say, California?

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