Monday, November 15, 2010

Domestic Partner Benefits

Two summers ago, Steve, Beto and I went to vist with young people enrolled in a program called Youth Build at Centro Salud Familiar La Fe. The program's aim is to teach young people who have dropped out of school a building trade and to work with them to get their G.E.D. We talked to them about El Paso, about our jobs and why we got involved in politics. We asked them to talk to us about their concerns, what they liked about El Paso, what they would like to see changed. A young man stood up and said he was in love with another young man and he wanted to know that they would have a welcome place in El Paso, in our commmunity. He wanted to know what we were doing to make El Paso a welcoming environment for gays and lesbians in our commmunity.

As a result of that young man's questions, Beto suggested that the City Council authorize domestic partner benefits for city employees. Essentially if a long time committed gay or lesbian couple can provide proof of that long time relationship, we would extend benefits to the partner in the same way that we would extend benefits for a spouse. Nothing more. Nothing less. Since gays and lesbians cannot consecrate their union by a legal marriage, domestic partner benefits would provide equal access to health insurance for committed partnerships. The City Council authorized the domestic partner benefits in a vote of 7 to 1.

There were many who came in support. There were also many who came and spoke out against this action of City Council. The people who came to speak out against it pounded bibles and quoted scripture and told us that homosexuals were immoral. Homosexuals could not claim love or commitment, only lust and deviance, they said. They told us that homosexuals were rapists and pedophiles. Some referenced domestic partner benefits as a subplot in a larger plot to legalize sex with children. They wanted us to know that homosexuals were "less than" and because of this should be treated as "less than." Barney Fields, an El Paso preacher, recently said that a vote in favor of domestic partner benefits was an open invitation to God for the violence in Juarez to spillover. The opponents said they would not stand for any measure by the City that would value the commitment of lesbians or gays in loving long term relationships.

To be clear, I do not think that everyone who opposes providing domestic partner benefits is led by the same hate and fear and hysteria that I illustrated above. For example, I heard from a city employee that he was concerned about adding additional people to the City's plan in a tough economic environment. Because we have to provide equal protection under the law, straight couples who meet the same criteria of domestic partners are also eligible for this benefit. Some people did not think it was right to provide these straight couples with benefits since they have legal access to the benefits of marriage.

But it was the people who dedicated themselves to this issue, the ones whose voices led the charge against domestic partner benefits, who seemed less concerned with "family values" and more concerned with tearing down people who live in our community and work for the City that brought this issue to the voters. They were so enraged when we passed the domestic partner benefits that they did the hard work of putting an item on the ballot to overturn the council's initiative. This is no small task. You have to collect thousands and thousands of signatures. Twice.

On November 2, 2010, 39,016 El Pasoans voted to "endorse traditional family values by making health benefits available only to city employees and their legal spouse and dependent children." 31,892 people voted against it. 10,931 people undervoted, which means they went to the polls but didn't vote on this measure either because they didn't understand the referendum or didn't care to weigh in on this particular issue.

On Tuesday, I voted to repeal this vote of a majority of El Pasoans. I also voted to introduce a city charter ammendment that stated, "The City shall afford equal employment and benefit opportunities to all qualified individuals in compliance with all applicable laws, without regard to their race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, color, religion, ethnic background or national origin, age, disability, or any other characteristic or status that is protected by federal, state, or local law."

I lost on both points.

The ordinance will stand as written by the petitioners and adopted by the voters of El Paso.

I've received emails and calls asking me to explain myself, asking why I would vote against the will of the people.

I'll do my best to explain.

We have been asked by the voters through iniatitive petitions before to change our minds. Most recently, a group of citizens asked voters to transfer the ratemaking authority for the stormwater system from the Public Service Board to the City Council. That vote failed but had it passed, I would have had no argument with implementing it as directed by the voters. It was a matter of policy, a matter of how best to run the stormwater system.

It is a different matter though when you are asked to change your vote on a matter of conscience, a basic principle, a fundamental of who you are that guides the way you live your life and treat other people, a value that you work hard everyday to instill in your own children.

Domestic partner benefits obviously is about more than access to health care. It is about how we treat people who are perceived to be different and whether we welcome everyone despite their differences. Gay and lesbian men and women in our community have enduring committed relationships. Why should we not honor and value those committed relationships as we honor and value the committed relationships of straight people? Like the young gay man said at La Fe, he wanted to know he had a place here. Not just to be tolerated but to be recognized and valued equally as part of his community.

There have been moments in our history when the majority wished to withhold the benefits of citizenship and employment and fair pay and benefits and dignity and liberty from any number of groups of people including women, black people, Catholics, Jews. But relentless and vocal advocates willing to speak to the best in all of us were able re-shape and change the landscape of those fears and hatreds and make our cities and our nation stronger because of it.

I did not do this lightly. It was an unsettling choice to make: to vote to upend the will of El Pasoans who I asked to represent or to vote against the very deepest values that shape who I am. And honestly, no matter what choice I made, I knew it would not feel exactly right. I also knew that my vote would put me at odds with many voters in my district and make me a legitimate target of a recall campaign.

All of this was further complicated by the language that was approved by the voters. The petitioners were against domestic partners benefits and wanted them repealed but instead of asking the voters to repeal the domestic partner benefits, they asked the voters to "endorse traditional family values by making health benefits available only to city employees and their legal spouse and dependent children." Because of the phrase, "only to city employees," the petitioners left out any number of people who are currently covered by our health plan. Retirees are not city employees. Luckily, there is a provision in state law that requires us to cover retirees unless they have access to health care through another source. So there may be some retirees who lose their coverage. There are many agencies of the city, like the Public Service Board and the Metropolitan Planning Organization, where the employees are not technically city employees. These employees will likely lose their health benefits under the language approved by the voters.

The petitioners were advised in November of last year that the language that they presented on the petition had significant problems that would cause more harm to more people than they intended. They could have started over, presented more clear ballot language but they refused to do so. "You know what we mean," they said. I understand that the intent of the petitioners was deny health care coverage to the partners of gay and lesbians who are employees of the City. But I cannot say that that was the intent of every voter. There was a lot of media coverage about the many people beyond domestic partners who would lose coverage. Some of the emails I received from voters said that they voted for the measure because they agreed that these other affected parties should not receive coverage. For example, I received this note from a voter, "Most of the citizens of El Paso do not even have the option of getting health insurance through their employers. The citizens that do get health insurance usually have to pay the full cost to cover their families. They do not want the city to tax them to provide benefits to city employees that far exceed what the tax payers have available."

I understand the intent of the petitioners. I've understood it all too well from having sat through hours and hours of meetings where they visciously tore down people in our community who do not conform to their view of "right" and "normal." But I can't say with certainty what the intent of the 39,016 people who voted in favor of the measure was. This was another reason that I felt that it would be important to put the measure back to the voters and why I proposed the non-discrimination city charter ammendment.

My colleagues did not accept the more general anti-discrimination language I proposed for a city charter ammendment but instead asked that we craft specific language and put the question to the voters more plainly. Should the City provide domestic partner benefits? Yes or no.


Marcus Green said...

Although I disagree that I should be in your district at all, I am in support of your vote 100%. People are ignorant.

Jim said...

Why should taxpayers be paying spouse premiums anyway?

Why can't you just let the employees pay 100% of the premium for their spouse or significant other? That would end the problem right there.

And as to your question Ms. Byrd, the people elect you to represent them. No means No and your constituents said "No".

Jacob Miles said...

What a hero you are for equality!!! I graduated from Coronado High School over 15 years ago and, though I spend most of my time in New York City, I return to El Paso several times a year. You -- together with the citizens who voted for tolerance and equality -- make me proud to say I grew up in El Paso! Thank you for making the tough decisions that refuse discrimination and extend a welcome to ALL El Pasoans.

Isaac Perez Bolado said...

Way to go Susie. I can frankly say I am proud to live in this city, where we have principled leaders like you. The humanity and intelligence you have demonstrated on this issue will certainly continue to resound among the people who supported the side of equality in this issue, and I am sure we will use every drop of strength to stand behind you when you need it.

Ultimately, I trust that the people of El Paso are loving and hopeful enough that if only we had had the right climate, the right message flowing, most people could not oppose recognizing the dignity of their fellow El Pasoans. I am certain that this is even more true for my generation.

Stay strong, Susie. You have given courage to many, and when this council is remembered in the future, I am sure you will be remembered as being a strong voice for the side that ultimately won, which is the side of the more perfect union this country was supposed to strive for.

SammyC said...

"But I can't say with certainty what the intent of the 39,016 people who voted in favor of the measure was"

So that made you feel it was necessary to go against the will of the people. No offense but who are you to have to be certain about a vote to accept it? Do we have to make sure that every election pleases you? Elections are not meant to please those who represent us, they are meant to tell those who represent us what we expect to get done by them.

I think your little publicity stunt backfired when you put this measure up for vote. It could have been taken care of in house. But now the taxpayers have to pay for you to be able to parade your agenda.

A little food for thought. Some of the best leaders have been those who do things for the people when the cameras aren't even on. Stop using city council as a stage to bring attention to yourselves.

My name might be Samuel but I am not a judge or a prophet. I don't thump on bibles or hate people who are not like me. What I do dislike is when our government thinks they have the right to go against what we the people say. The people have spoken, elected officials must listen!

Bill Ellis said...

A thousand thanks and unqualified support. Get ready for action to commence in court.

Celia said...

True leadership means going against the popular will sometimes. I hope you and council find a way to show that El Pasoans really are the nicest and kindest people in the world - I know they are. I am a gay woman living in Austin but remember my days at Ysleta High school when it was really really tough to be different. These votes say a lot about the city we love. El Paso forged me and I will always love it. Thanks for your leadership Ms. Byrd. Keep on finding a way to make positive change.

Adrian said...

What makes you think that people who voted to oppose domestic partner benefits were not also voting on, as you put it, "...a matter of conscience, a basic principle, a fundamental of who you are that guides the way you live your life and treat other people, a value that you work hard everyday to instill in your own children." You may not agree with their "matter of conscience" but at least don't pretend that it wasn't precisely that. Don't belittle it by calling it hate and fear and hysteria. As you yourself hold, part of civil society is accepting and finding a place for those whose views differ from your own, showing them a welcome place. Is it that you feel your conscience is superior to the inferior consciences of the voters, or just that you may overrule theirs because you occupy a position of power that they do not? If that's the case you may not be clear on another fundamental principle, that of Democracy. You might in that case be more familiar with the principles of Oligarchy. Is it that you are more Enlightened that the Judeo-Christian tradition? Would you believe, as would one of your commentators, that two millennium of Catholic teaching constitutes ignorance? Is that what you wish to tell your constituents? You would so blithely ask them to repeal their convictions?

Kirstin said...

Thank you for your tireless commitment to doing what is simply right. You will always have my support.

I would counter what "Jim" said, but I've come to terms that some people will never get it.

Thankfully, you do.

Anonymous said...

The people didn't ask you to "change your mind". They voted on a specific issue. For you to "decide" that they are horrible people and do not deserve a say in society is byond vanity. You deserve to be recalled. That was a long diatribe just to say that thrity-nine thousand El Pasoans are hateful and/or stupid and that you think you know better than everyone else.

Jayme said...

Suzie, the voters have spoken - what's the issue here? And I agree with Jim - why are we paying health premiums for spouses anyway? How much would the city be saving if we didn't pay for spouses and families? But again, No means No. Of the people, by the people, for the people - you are not your own person any longer. You work for us.

Anonymous said...

Mrs. Bird, I just want to tell you that I agree with you. I also feel that as citizen living in the 21st century, we should treat everybody equally.
I rather have my tax money going to the spouse of a worker that is doing something to earn it, whether it is gay or straight. than going to so many people that chooses not to do anything because if they do, they will loose their benefits (wellfare from the government).

But some people choose to call them inmoral and live in the 1800 hundreds and cover their ignorance behind a book called bible that as time goes on more and more people is finding to be a fiction.
One day they will see that we live in a areal world, not one made up by a book

Anonymous said...

I am thankful that your are someone who believes in your views, yes you are elected but the voters must know that they also vote for person and their values. I am so glad that you are fighting for these benefits, if every official went by what everyone wanted, we would still be living in segregated cities. Although i knew el paso would take away these benefits, which is another reason i plan to leave this city following my graduation, but i am happy we have some progress. Although i am to young to vote, i will help to fight for rights of everyone. Thank you for the hope!
here is a great quote “All men are created equal. No matter how hard you try, you can never erase those words.” Harvey Milk

Jose Luis said...

I believe in traditional families, respect and dignity for others aswell. You should listen to us to as you listened to that one young man in La Fe. If we do not stand for something we will fall for everything respect traditional families.