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McDermott introduces pro-gay tax equity bill

Legislation would eliminate tax on employer-provided coverage

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The sponsor of legislation that would ensure tax equity for same-sex couples receiving employer-provided health benefits envisions upcoming tax reform legislation as a potential vehicle for passage.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), the sponsor of the Tax Parity for Health Plan Beneficiaries Act, said in an interview with the Washington Blade that he sees an opportunity to move his legislation forward when Congress takes up planned legislation for tax reform.

“It will be easy to put it in some tax bill along the way,” McDermott said. “It won’t be a standalone bill.”

Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chair of the House Ways & Means Committee, has said he wants to address tax reform during this Congress and has held hearings on the issue, although the time for when the panel will take up the larger bill is still unknown.

A McDermott staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said his boss could amend the larger tax reform legislation with the Tax Parity for Health Plan Beneficiaries Act when it comes before the committee, but said it “depends on the process the Republicans take.”

McDermott’s legislation rectifies an inequity faced by LGBT couples under current law, which exempts employer-provided health coverage for opposite-sex spouses from an employee’s gross income, but makes domestic partner benefits and coverage for same-sex spouses subject to taxation.

Consequently, employees seeking to cover their same-sex partners or spouses pay more income and payroll tax than a straight employee with an opposite-sex spouse.

This inequity also burdens employers who want to extend their health benefits to the partners of their gay employees. Companies that offer such benefits have the administrative burden of calculating taxes separately and have to pay additional payroll taxes.

McDermott said he introduced the legislation, which has been languishing in Congress since 2001, as a “matter of basic fairness” for same-sex couples who are receiving employer-provided health benefits.

“If there is a couple who are in some kind of union, recognized in one way or another, they have to pay taxes on it,” McDermott said. “That’s not fair. Why should a gay couple, or any kind of couples that are living together, using one health insurance plan have to pay taxes whereas if you’re married and not a same-sex couple, you don’t have to pay taxes.”

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement that the legislation will eliminate an additional barrier that same-sex couples face in securing health insurance coverage.

“This legislation would remove that added tax burden, which can be as much as $2,200 per year, as well as the penalty imposed on fair-minded employers who provide equal benefits to their LGBT employees,” Solmonese said.

In the last Congress, the legislation was included as a provision in a House version of health care reform legislation. However, the language never made it as part of the final bill because the Senate version of health care reform was the bill that made its way to President Obama’s desk.

Despite the failure last week, McDermott said the prospects of passing tax reform legislation this Congress are even greater than last year — even with Republicans in control of the House — because of the plan for Congress to address tax reform legislation by the end of next year.

“We’ve got some Republican sponsors this time,” McDermott said. “As a matter of fact, there are a lot more Republicans who have heard from people in their district who are saying, ‘Just change the tax code and make it easier for us.'”

As of this week, McDermott’s legislation has three co-sponsors: Reps. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) , Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.). In the Senate, Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is set to introduce companion legislation either this week or the next. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) will be an original co-sponsor.

R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, praised the Republican co-sponsors for joining on in early support of the legislation.

“We need common sense, pro-growth policies to give businesses and entrepreneurs renewed confidence in our economy and to remove Washington as the roadblock to job creation,” Cooper said. “Under current policy, the federal tax code is punishing the business community for providing their gay and lesbian employees with benefits. Congress can help private sector growth by eliminating the punitive domestic partner tax.”

An estimated 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies offer health insurance benefits to the same-sex partners of the employees. On May 31, 77 major American businesses — including Alaska Airlines, Microsoft and Boeing — sent a letter to McDermott in support of the legislation.

“Companies like ours in increasing numbers have made the business decision to provide health benefits to such beneficiaries, such as the domestic partners, adult children, certain grandchildren, etc. of our employees,” the letter states. “This coverage and coverage of non-spouse, non-dependent beneficiaries helps corporations attract and retain qualified employees and provides employees with health security on an equitable basis.”

The legislation falls under the jurisdiction of the Republican-controlled House Ways & Means Committee, which most observers expect to be unfriendly to pro-LGBT legislation. Camp’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the bill.

However, one of the signers of the legislation is the Dow Chemical Co., which is headquartered in Midland, Mich., and in Camp’s district. Supporters of the legislation are hoping Dow’s endorsement will prompt Camp to support it.

McDermott said he hasn’t had discussions with Camp about his bill yet, but plans to do so when the congressional recess ends at the start of next week.

The administration has also yet to voice support one way or the other for the legislation. Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, told the Blade the administration hasn’t yet reviewed the measure.

“While we have not reviewed this specific legislation, the president generally supports efforts to give parity and equal protection to same-sex couples,” Inouye said.

McDermott said he doesn’t see any interim action that President Obama could take to address the situation and said passing legislation is the only to end the tax inequity faced by LGBT couples.

“I think it’s going to require a law change,” McDermott said. “If you keep after something that’s right, then ultimately the stars line up and it passes. That’s what’s going to happen here.”

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Federal Government

Barbara Lee: PEPFAR is ‘more in peril’ than ever before

Congress has yet to reauthorize funding for Bush-era HIV/AIDS program

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U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) speaks about the future of PEPFAR at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference in D.C. on Sept. 22, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

California Congresswoman Barbara Lee on Sept. 22 said the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief is “more in peril” now than at any point since its launch two decades ago.

“This program is reauthorized every five years, but it’s always on a bipartisan basis,” said Lee during a panel at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference that took place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in D.C. “As we approach the benchmark of an AIDS-free generation by 2023, it is unfortunately more in peril now than ever before.”

Then-President George W. Bush in 2003 signed legislation that created PEPFAR.

Lee noted PEPFAR as of 2020 has provided nearly $100 billion in “cumulative funding for HIV and AIDS treatment, prevention and research.” She said PEPFAR is the largest global funding program for a single disease outside of COVID-19.

New PEPFAR strategy includes ‘targeted programming’ for marginalized groups

The panel took place amid the continued push for Congress to reauthorize PEPFAR for another five years. The federal government will shut down on Oct. 1 if Congress does not pass an appropriations bill.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken last December at a World AIDS Day event in D.C. acknowledged HIV/AIDS continues to disproportionately impact LGBTQ and intersex people and other marginalized groups. A new PEPFAR strategy the Biden-Harris administration announced that seeks to “fill those gaps” over the next five years includes the following points:

• Targeted programming to help reduce inequalities among LGBTQ and intersex people, women and girls and other marginalized groups

• Partnerships with local organizations to help reach “hard-to-reach” communities.

• Economic development and increased access to financial markets to allow countries to manufacture their own antiretroviral drugs, tests and personal protective gear to give them “the capacity to meet their own challenges so that they’re not dependent on anyone else.”

The Family Research Council Action in an email to supporters urged them to tell Congress to “stop Biden from hijacking PEPFAR to promote its radical social policies overseas.” Family Watch International has said PEPFAR “has been hijacked to advance a radical sexual agenda.”

“Please sign the petition to tell the U.S. Congress to ensure that no U.S. funds go to organizations that promote abortion, LGBT ideology, or ‘comprehensive sexuality education,'” said the group in an email to its supporters. 

A group of lawmakers and religious leaders from Kenya and other African countries in a letter they wrote to members of Congress in June said PEPFAR, in their view, no longer serves its original purposes of fighting HIV/AIDS because it champions homosexuality and abortion.

“We wrote that letter to the U.S. Congress not to stop PEPFAR funding to Kenya, but to demand the initiative to revert to its original mission without conditioning it to also supporting LGBTQ as human rights,” it reads.

Biden in 2021 signed a memo that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad as part of his administration’s overall foreign policy.

American officials earlier this year postponed a meeting on PEPFAR’s work in Uganda in order to assess the potential impact the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act will have on it. The law, which Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed on May 29, contains a death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality.”

Biden in his U.N. General Assembly speech last week noted LGBTQ and intersex rights and highlighted PEPFAR. Family Watch International in its email to supporters included a link to the letter from the African lawmakers and religious leaders.  

The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated both the FRC and Family Watch International as anti-LGBTQ hate groups.

“[PEPFAR is] not about abortions,” said Lee.

HIV/AIDS activists protest inside house speaker kevin mccarthy (r-calif.)’s office in d.c. on sept. 11, 2023. (washington blade video by michael k. lavers)

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power during the panel referenced Bush’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post that urged lawmakers to reauthorize PEPFAR.

“The way he put it is no program is more pro-life [than] one that has saved more than 25 million lives,” said Power.

Power referenced the “manufactured controversy that is making it difficult to get this reauthorization.” U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Dr. John Knengasong said a failure to reauthorize PEPFAR would weaken “our own foreign policy and diplomacy.”

“Once again the United States will be missing in action,” stressed Lee.

Assistant Health and Human Services Secretary for Legislation Melanie Egorin and Kenny Kamson, a Nigerian HIV/AIDS activist, also spoke on the panel that MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart moderated. 

From left: U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Dr. John Nkengasong and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power discuss the future of PEPFAR at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference in D.C. on Sept. 22, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
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The White House

Biden, Harris, deliver remarks for White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention

Pulse survivor Brandon Wolf among those who spoke

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President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris listen as U.S. Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-Fla.) addresses an audience in the Rose Garden including federal, state and local officials, survivors and family members, and gun violence prevention advocates on Sept. 22, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Brandon Wolf)

President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) addressed an audience from the Rose Garden of the White House on Friday to honor the establishment of a first-ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention.

In a press release Thursday announcing the move, the administration said its aim is to implement and expand the provisions of last year’s Bipartisan Safer Communities Act along with those contained in the president’s executive orders targeting issues of gun violence.

Additionally, Biden explained in his remarks, the office will coordinate more support for survivors, families and communities, including mental health services and financial aid; identify new avenues for executive action; and “expand our coalition of partners in states and cities across America” given the need for legislative solutions on the local and state level.

Harris, who will oversee the office, pledged to “use the full power of the federal government to strengthen the coalition of survivors and advocates and students and teachers and elected leaders to save lives and fight for the right of all people to be safe from fear and to be able to live a life where they understand that they are supported in that desire and that right.”

The vice president noted her close experiences with the devastating consequences of gun violence in her work as a federal prosecutor, San Francisco district attorney, California attorney general and in her current role.

Biden’s comments also included highlights of his administration’s accomplishments combatting gun violence and a call to action for Congress to do more. “It’s time again to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines,” he told lawmakers.

The president also credited the the work of advocates including those who were gathered at the White House on Friday: “all of you here today, all across the country, survivors, families, advocates — especially young people who demand our nation do better to protect all; who protested, organized, voted, and ran for office, and, yes, marched for their lives.”

Taking the stage before introducing Biden, Frost noted that “Right before I was elected to Congress, I served as the national organizing director for March for Our Lives, a movement that inspired young people across the nation to demand safe communities.”

“The president understands that this issue especially for young people, especially for marginalized communities, is a matter of survival,” the congressman said. And the formation of this office, “comes from Pulse to Parkland,” he said, adding, “we fight because we love.”

Human Rights Campaign National Press Secretary Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, which was America’s second deadliest mass shooting and the deadliest against the LGBTQ community, shared a comment with the Washington Blade after Friday’s ceremony:

“Seven years ago, when my best friends and 47 others were murdered at our safe place — Pulse Nightclub — we promised to honor them with action. This is what that looks like. This deep investment in the fight to end gun violence matters, and I cannot wait to see Vice President Harris lead these efforts. We can blaze the path toward a future free of gun violence. And today marked an important step in that direction.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal judge: drag is ‘vulgar and lewd,’ ‘sexualized conduct’

Ruling ‘bristles with hostility toward LGBTQ people’

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J. Marvin Jones Federal Building, U.S. Courthouse in Amarillo, Texas (Photo: Library of Congress)

Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas issued a ruling Thursday denying relief to a group of university students who sought to host a drag show over the objections of their school’s president.

A Trump appointed jurist with deep ties to anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion conservative legal activists, Kacsmaryk argued that drag performances probably do not constitute speech protected by the First Amendment.

As Slate Senior Writer Mark Joseph Stern wrote on X, this conclusion “conflicts with decisions from Texas, Florida, Tennessee and Montana which held that drag is constitutionally protected expression.”

“It also bristles with undisguised hostility toward LGBTQ people,” he added.

Kacsmaryk’s 26-page decision describes drag performances as lewd and licentious, obscene and sexually prurient, despite arguments the plaintiffs had presented about the social, political, and artistic merit of this art form.

As the Human Rights Campaign recently wrote, “drag artists and the spaces that host their performances have long served as a communal environment for queer expression.”

The group added, “It is a form of art and entertainment, but, historically, the performances haven’t only served to entertain, but also to truly advance the empowerment and visibility of LGBTQ+ people.”

Nevertheless, anti-LGBTQ conservative activists and organizations have perpetuated conspiracy theories about members of the community targeting children for sexual abuse including by bringing them to drag performances.

Among these is a group with ties to the Proud Boys that was cited by Kacsmaryk in his ruling: Gays Against Groomers, an anti-LGBTQ and anti-transgender extremist group, according to the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center.

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