Other LGBT News: Portugal Approves Same-Sex Marriage; Obama Appoints Trans Female; First HIV+ Man To Visit U.S.

While states like California and New Jersey grapple clumsily with the issue of same-sex marriage and equality, Portugal apparently had little difficulty in approving legislation to allow such unions.  On Friday, Portugal’s Parliament voted by a sizeable majority – 125 to 99 – to permit same-sex marriages.  The nation’s President is not expected to veto the measure, and ceremonies are anticipated to begin as early as April 2010.

Before you go dismissing Portugal’s actions as just another liberal EU country showing off, Portugal is hardly a bastion of liberalism.  In fact, Portugal’s decision to approve same-sex marriage is significant given that the country is generally regarded as socially conservative.  Perhaps, in Portugal, the leaders were able to put aside their own petty squabblings and, well, lead.

You can link to a full article discussing Portugal’s decision here.

President Obama Appoints Transgender Female To Commerce Dept.

In other news this week, President Obama appointed transgender female, Amanda Simpson, to be Senior Technical Adviser to the Commerce Department.

“I’m truly honored to have received this appointment and am eager and excited about this opportunity that is before me,” she said in a press release by the National Center for Transgender Equality, an organization for which she has served on the board of directors.”

Simpson was most recently the deputy director in Advanced Technology Development at Raytheon Missile Systems in Tucson. A flight instructor and test pilot, Simpson also holds degrees in physics, engineering, and business administration.

You can link to other news articles discussing President Obama’s appointment here and here.

First HIV+ Traveler To Visit U.S. From The Netherlands

Clemons Ruland may become the first known HIV-positive person to legally visit the United States after he filed papers with the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security Monday, the day the HIV travel and immigration ban was officially lifted.  The ban was lifted on January 4 by President Obama after 22 years of barring HIV-positive people from entering the U.S.

Ruland, pictured on the right, will travel with his HIV-negative partner pictured left.  Ruland trip to the U.S. is being sponsored by Netherlands group, NGO AIDS Fonds, after he won an essay contest.

Thanks to The Advocate for reporting on this story, which you can link to here.

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President Obama To Lift HIV/AIDS Immigration Ban Tomorrow

As he stated that he would, President Obama will lift the 22-year immigration ban which has stopped anyone with HIV/AIDS from entering the U.S.  According to the BBC article which you can link here, President Obama said the ban was not compatible with US plans to be a leader in the fight against the disease.

In addition, the US plans to host a bi-annual global HIV/Aids summit for the first time in 2012.

The ban was imposed at the height of a global panic about the disease at the end of the 1980s.  As we reported here at CRW in the post entitled, “World AIDS Day 2009” immigration bans related to other health issues were lifted in the 1990s, but the ban related to HIV/AIDS was left as the only such ban.  The effect of this ban was not only to prevent immigration by adults, perhaps seeking treatment.  The ban also disrupted and prevented countless adoptions of HIV-infected infants from around the world by U.S. citizens.

Here is an additional article link summarizing how the law was repealed.

At CRW, we are proud of President Obama.  This decision is undoubtedly unpopular with the President’s sharpest critics.  Nevertheless, this is an example of a true leader’s core competency – the President stated what his plan of action would be, and then he carried it out.  Perhaps, along the way, President Obama has done something to sponge away the stigma raised against people with HIV and AIDS.

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World AIDS Day 2009: Combining A National And International Focus

Today, is World AIDS Day 2009.  The first World AIDS Day was held on December 1, 1988.  The event originated from the 1988 World Summit of Ministers of Health on Programmes for AIDS Prevention, part of the United Nations.  Since then, hundreds of millions of people have used World AIDS Day to raise awareness of the ongoing struggle against HIV/AIDS around the globe.

This year’s theme is “Universal Access And Human Rights,” a fitting theme in light of the divisive and, frankly, mean-spirited struggle taking place in the U.S. over pseudo-universal health care.  The United Nations has identified key principles for World AIDS Day 2009:

  • I am accepted.
  • I am safe.
  • I am getting treatment.
  • I am well.
  • I am living my rights.
  • Everyone deserves to live their rights.
  • Right to Live.
  • Right to Health.
  • Access for all to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support is a critical part of human rights.

People infected with HIV/AIDS live in all parts of the world.  Many countries, however, have been stricken harder by the epidemic than others.  In Botswana and Swaziland, for example, almost 40% of the population has HIV/AIDS. In Africa alone, 13 million children have been orphaned by AIDS.  Epidemics have erupted in China, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, several Central Asian Republics and the Baltic States.  Internationally, combating the spread of HIV/AIDS is further complicated by the resurgence of other opportunistic illnesses such as tuberculosis, aggressive flu virus, malaria, and cholera.  In March 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported some 89,000 cases of cholera in Zimbabwe.  In populations with high concentrations of immuno-compromised citizens, these types of diseases can wreak havoc.

Astonishingly, in 2009, many people – including many in the U.S. – continue to define HIV/AIDS as a problem faced by the “Other.” A “not my problem; it’s their problem.”  HIV/AIDS is not just a gay-straight problem; it is not just a health problem.  Statistically, HIV/AIDS spreads fastest among young people and working-age adults.  The virus respects neither social class, family ties, background, schooling, race, culture, or creed.  As a result, HIV/AIDS weakens a country as a whole.  In a global community, HIV/AIDS is everyone’s problem, and the epidemic has not gone away.

While we are fortunate that people living with HIV or AIDS in the U.S. are legally protected by legislation such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), stigma and mis-information has continued.  The stigma associated with HIV/AIDS could be seen clearly in the fact that the United States – one of only a dozen countries – persisted in banning travel into our country by anyone infected with HIV.  This ban went into effect in 1987, a time when fear and ignorance ruled most discussions about HIV/AIDS.

When the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services attempted to lift the ban in 1991, a right-wing led Congress took a further step toward stigmatizing HIV/AIDS by making it the only infectious disease barring entry into the U.S.  This ban has kept out thousands of students, tourists, refugees, and children with HIV needing adoption.

This year, a remarkable event took place, one for which President Obama should be commended.  In October 2009, President Obama signed an executive order lifting the travel and immigration ban on people living with HIV/AIDS. On January 4, 2010, people living with HIV/AIDS will be eligible to apply for a green card.

In case you missed the signing ceremony, I have uploaded a video to the Box on this site for your viewing.  In attendance at the signing ceremony was Jeanne White-Ginder, mother of Ryan White.  Ryan White was a teenager from Indiana who brought international attention to the AIDS epidemic and for which is named the Ryan White Care Act.  As part of the signing cerermony, President Obama also reauthorized the Ryan White Care Act.

If you do nothing else this year, take a few minutes to either educate yourself about HIV/AIDS, or perhaps even update what you know about the epidemic, its social costs, and legal issues.  Here are some resources available to you:

Yahoo Directory on HIV/AIDS

HIV/AIDS Search Engine

National Pediatric AIDS Network

AIDS Resource List – this list includes national and international resources

National Minority AIDS Council – this site contains a very useful video on the domestic, U.S. HIV/AIDS epidemic

National Association of People With AIDS

Communities Advocating Emergency AIDS Relief

United Nations’ World AIDS Day 2009 website – you will find the 2010 Outlook report in the Box on this site

In addition, all across the Internet you can find many informative articles discussing various HIV/AIDS-related issues.  Of particular assistance to me in preparing this post was Felix Salmon’s article on Reuters, Anna Gorman’s article from the L.A. Times, and Darlene Superville’s article from The Huffington Post.  I also would like to point out a very interesting article written by my colleague, Lori J. Paul, on her blog, californiafamilylawparalegal.  The article discusses a specific HIV/AIDS-related issue – adoption or conception by HIV+ men and women.  It is well worth checking out, and contains many additional resources not listed here, including a link to the official U.S. government website, AIDS.gov.

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Same-Sex Couples Benefit From Un-Noticed Provisions Of Health Care Bill

140px-US-GreatSeal-Obverse.svgAccording to the New York Times and Metro Weekly, Washington D.C.’s lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) newspaper, the health care bill passed by Congress late last night may benefit gay and lesbian couples by reason of unnoticed provision sponsored by Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Washington).  This new development is explained further by information posted on the Human Rights Campaign Fund (HRC) website.

According to the information HRC posted, the “Affordable Health Care for America Act,” H.R. 3962, contains several provisions of interest to the lesbian and gay communities.  As the law stands now, lesbian and gay couples are required to pay federal taxes on health benefits provided by their employer as if these benefits were extra income.  Married, heterosexual couples do not.  The health care bill designates lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as a “health disparities population.”  Significantly, this opens up health data collection and grant program focused on health disparities as they relate to sexual orientation and gender identity issues.

The health care bill will also effectively end the taxation of health benefits provided to same-sex couples by incorporating the language of the Tax Equity for Health Plan Beneficiaries Act.  This will immediately benefit same-sex families by freeing up additional monetary resources to pay for their needs.  Quoting M. V. Lee Badgett, a labor economist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the New York Times article stated that employees with domestic partner benefits paid an average of $1,100 a year more in taxes than married employees with the same coverage.

Rep. McDermott said these changes will ‘correct a longstanding injustice, end a blatant inequity in the tax code and help make health care coverage more affordable for more Americans.”

In addition, HRC  listed the “Early Treatment for HIV Act,” which would allow states to cover early HIV treatment through their Medicaid programs.  Presently, states may withhold treatment for Medicaid recipients until they develop full-blown AIDS.  This one addition to the health care bill alone will improve health care for low-income people living with HIV and will put the Medicaid system more squarely in the arena of best practices for HIV care, which emphasizes early treatment and not delaying until the onset of AIDS.  In the long run, early intervention also saves taxpayer dollars rather than waiting until emergency or life-threatening illnesses develop because those illnesses are more difficult and costly to treat.

Finally, and perhaps most significant from a civil rights perspective, the health care bill outlaws the considering of any personal characteristics unrelated to the provision of health care.  HRC reports that it worked with a coalition of civil rights groups to develop and lobby for this language.  No federal protections currently exist that prohibit the consideration of unrelated personal characteristics by private insurers.

Lesbian and gay couples are not the only ones to benefit from the health care bill.  The bill overhauls the current sex education system, which emphasizes abstinence from sex by young people.  This abstinence-based approach by the federal government is estimated to have cost taxpayers roughly $1 billion dollars, and is generally regarded as a failure particularly in terms of halting the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.  The health care bill provides funding for comprehensive sex education programs which focus not only on abstinence, but also reducing teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

The bill also mandates nutritional labeling changes for food that is sold in vending machines.  This new law would require vendors with 20 or more vending machines to post a sign near the vending machines that “clearly and conspicuously” states the number of calories in the food products.

From a progressive perspective, the new provisions pertaining to same-sex couples are definitely steps in the right direction.  However, when it comes to equalizing the federal benefits conferred on married couples with the near-total absence of benefits bestowed on same-sex couples, the health care bill is merely a first step.  In matters of federal taxation, in particular, enormous disparities remain.  For example, under the Internal Revenue Code, a spouse can transfer real property to the other spouse without triggering any adverse tax consequences under the “stepped up basis” provisions of the IRC.  Same-sex couples who transfer property to each other – even if they are registered under a domestic partnership or civil union system – do not receive such benefits.  Federal public benefits, like social security benefits, are another area where improvements are woefully lacking.

The federal government enacted legislation entitled the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.  DOMA states:

  1. No state (or other political subdivision within the United States) needs to treat a relationship between persons of the same sex as a marriage, even if the relationship is considered a marriage in another state.
  2. The federal government defines marriage as a legal union exclusively between one man and one woman.

DOMA is largely responsible for creating a legislative roadblock to improvements in this area.  A Constitutional Amendment to strictly limit marriage to one man and one woman has been hotly debated, but has not garnered sufficient support to be a viable alternative for opponents of same-sex marriage.