Gay Couples Express Hope Over Benefits Extension

Director of the Office of Personnel Management John Barry outlines the signficance of a presidential memorandum that President Obama will sign, extending federal employee benefits for same-sex couples. Audio by Sarah Lovenheim/The Washington Post
By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 2009

As Candy Holmes eyes retirement after 33 years of work for the Government Accountability Office, a major worry clouds her outlook.

Her partner, a clergywoman with limited health insurance, is not covered by the health or retirement benefits that Holmes receives from the federal government.

"I've been without benefits for my partner the entire time," said Holmes, an information technology manager at the GAO. "Thank God we have not had any major illness. If we had, I'm not sure how we could manage."

The presidential memorandum signed yesterday afternoon by President Obama extends some benefits to same-sex partners of federal workers, among other things allowing them to be included in the long-term-care insurance program. But it still leaves them without federal health and retirement benefits. That will require the passage of legislation now before Congress.

Nonetheless, Obama's order has cheered Holmes and left her optimistic that more change is coming. "Hopeful. Excited," she said of her mood yesterday. "Wanting to believe this is the beginning of equality."

Holmes and her partner, Darlene Garner, are both ordained clergy with the Metropolitan Community Church.

"I was thinking about it last night," said Holmes, a native Washingtonian who lives with Garner in Laurel. "We are African American, a lesbian couple, and we are religious. Having gone through the civil rights movement, I'm glad for this step being made."

The order signed by Obama also will allow federal employees to use sick leave to take care of domestic partners, as is already allowed for heterosexual couples.

"That's a difference that needed to be wiped out," said Kristian Fauchald, a marine biologist with the Smithsonian, whose partner, Leonard Hirsch, fell ill and was hospitalized this year.

"He was in the hospital for about six weeks, and that left me running around," said Fauchald, who is a systematic zoologist specializing in worms at the National Museum of Natural History.

The Smithsonian allowed Fauchald to take sick leave, but that is somewhat unusual among federal agencies, according to Hirsch, who is president of Federal Globe, an organization representing gay and lesbian federal workers.

"Most of the big agencies would not allow it," said Hirsch, who serves as the international liaison at the Smithsonian Institution but is not a federal employee. "If he were at DoD or Interior, he would have had to take leave without pay or vacation."

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