Gay Couples Express Hope Over Benefits Extension

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."

Hirsch and Fauchald helped establish Federal Globe in 1992. "There needed to be an organization," Hirsch said. "There was a serious issue of discrimination around the government. You could be fired for being gay."

Now, he said, such issues are less prevalent. "Very rarely have there been problems of security clearances anymore," Hirsch said. "Benefits are clearly the big outstanding issue."

Jamie Price, a lawyer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said she hopes Obama's action will "perhaps spur Congress" into approving the bipartisan legislation that would provide domestic partners of federal workers the same benefits as the spouses of federal employees.

"It's a very important issue to me," Price said. "I have a partner of 20 years who would like to retire, but to do so, I have to keep her on my insurance."

Price said she also hopes the presidential memorandum will help gay employees feel more comfortable in the federal workforce. "Most gays and lesbians tend to keep a low profile," she said. "We stay out of the office coffee pot conversations about what you did over the weekend. We don't feel we can or should contribute."

Obama's action "may help younger workers feel they can be open," Price added.

At age 52, Holmes hopes to retire from the GAO in about three years but is anxious about whether Garner, her partner, will be covered with health and retirement benefits. "I've become very concerned as I move toward retirement, and I'm not too far away," Holmes said.

Passage of the legislation, she added, "would take a tremendous weight off us."

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