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PrideFest 2012: LGBT advances don't add up to equality

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 22, 2012 - Ellisville novelist and screenwriter Bart Baker has a typical suburban family life: a home, two kids, friendly neighbors and a large extended clan at every birthday party.

But one of the many ways Baker, 53, and his partner, minister Joe Alway-Baker, 43, differ from their neighbors is in their inheritance plan. Should one of them die, everything goes to their two children -- even though they’re only 6 years old.

“If I left everything to my partner, he’d be taxed on it, so how do you get around that?” Baker said. “You leave everything to your children and make your partner executor of the estate -- and hope the children don’t hate him when it happens.”

‘It takes a law degree’

The work-around used by Baker and his partner, whose success depends on the good will of first-graders (he’s confident everything would go well), is viable only because both men are on the children’s California birth certificates.

That kind of outside-of-the box strategizing is essential for same-sex couples.

As St. Louis prepares to celebrate its 33rd PrideFest this weekend in Tower Grove Park, there is much work to be done toward equality. Even with President Obama endorsing same-sex marriage, deciding against enforcement of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) citizens and couples still experience legal discrimination in countless ways.

The handful of laws designed to protect same-sex pairs — or, more typically, laws that offer protection as a by-product — are often unenforced, unpublicized and difficult to understand.

“It takes a law degree to figure all this out,” Baker said.

But even attorneys have trouble untangling the issues. If Baker added his partner to the deed on his home under “joint tenancy with right of survivorship,” it would give full ownership to either in the event of a death, according to St. Louis attorney Tony Westbrooks of Crow Takacs, a firm that serves same-sex partner clients.

Still, there may be tax implications. And the issue’s so complex that any specific case would require the input of yet another expert.

“I think then we’d need to talk to a CPA,” Westbrooks said.

If Baker changed the deed to give his partner rights of survivorship, Alway-Baker could - when that deed change is filed - owe gift tax on the amount of the property's value over $13,000.

“This is why estate planning attorneys and CPAs work together,” Westbrooks said.

In Missouri, a beneficiary deed, which passes a house through a non-probate transfer, is an option for all couples, gay and straight.

“But the beneficiary may be subject to creditors of the deceased,” Westbrooks said.

Gays: Keep out

Buying or renting a house or apartment also poses issues. In Missouri, it’s legal for property owners to refuse to sell or rent to someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

A new federal HUD rule makes discrimination against LGBT prospects illegal when the property is HUD-funded, but the regulation is not widely known. Organizations such as SAGE, a St. Louis nonprofit advocating for LGBT seniors, are working to ensure that the rule is followed.

A myriad of legal obstacles concern access and money, such as spousal Social Security benefits, joint income tax returns, and partner health insurance and hospital visitation, to name a few.

More than once, Brandee Hewlett, 28, has worried in hospital waiting rooms while Amanda, her partner of four years, underwent treatment for debilitating seizures. Amanda’s condition can leave her unable to speak. Having no family in town and a partner sidelined in a waiting room leave her with no advocate.

To Hewlett, it seems that hospital personnel arbitrarily pick and choose when she can be in the room with her partner — and when she can’t.

“Some are even rude and ask me numerous times who am I to the patient,” Hewlett wrote in response to an Public Insight Network query for the Beacon.

Hewlett is working on power-of-attorney documents to remedy the situation. But while naming a power of attorney is a good idea, it shouldn’t be required for visitation. Keeping same-sex partners from each others’ bedsides goes against new Health and Human Services guidelines, according to A.J. Bockelman of the Missouri LGBT advocacy organization PROMO.

Hewlett and her partner — like many other same-sex couples — weren’t aware of the HHS guidelines or that people in the agency can help with enforcement if they know about problems.

Employment is another issue. Many people — gay and straight — don’t realize that Missouri bosses can still fire or demote someone because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Ismael Rodriguez, 46, a six-year employee of a local audio-visual company, suspects he’s been held back from promotions because he’s gay. He’s also upset that his company does not offer health insurance benefits for same-sex partners.

“Seems the rules in my company do not apply equally,” Rodriguez wrote.

Even when same-sex partners can get health insurance — which is at the discretion of individual employers — the benefit is counted as income, and taxed accordingly, a penalty straight married people don’t face.

But sometimes the laws work out for LGBT couples. Elena Valentine, 35, has plans to marry her transgender boyfriend Trent Hausman, who was born female but is now legally male. 

Valentine is looking forward to her wedding but wrote in response to the PIN  query that she’s sad for “our fellow gay/lesbian friends who want to have the same recognition.”

Hope and change

In the past 10 years, a paradigm shift in this country has opened a world of equality — or near-equality — for the LGBT community.

In June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a law that prohibited sexual contact between members of the same sex. In May 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to offer legal civil unions — an idea once considered a pipe dream with simple hand-holding inviting violence and, often, police intervention.

Today, Illinois and 10 other states offer domestic partnerships or civil unions, and same-sex marriage is legal in Iowa and a half-dozen other states But while these state-sanctioned relationships allow couples to file joint state income tax returns and offer a few other entitlements, the federal DOMA keeps same-sex partners from enjoying the vast majority of marital rights.

Four years after Barack Obama campaigned on “hope and change,” things have changed and hope has blossomed within the LGBT community. One week ago, Obama presided over his fourth LGBT Pride Month reception.

Sherrill Wayland, executive director of SAGE, and her partner of 17 years, Kim Kopff, were among those invited. While Wayland missed out on shaking Obama’s hand, Kopff didn’t.

“She’s shorter than I am and she was right there in almost the front row,” Wayland said.

Wayland was overwhelmed by her White House invitation. Recognition by a U.S. president would have been unthinkable before 2009, the year Obama declared June as Pride Month. His proclamation lauded the early pioneers of LGBT pride including the Stonewall Inn rioters. whose protests against raids at Stonewall and other New York City establishments where gays gathered gave birth to the modern-day pride movement.

For decades, as Wayland and millions of other LGBT Americans grew up and came out, the fledgling movement went unrecognized by the government and mainstream society.

“Never would I have thought I’d be invited because of my work in the LGBT equality movement.” Wayland said. “It’s an incredible opportunity for anyone, and especially for me as an 'out' lesbian.”

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.