Two separate committees of the U. S. House of Representatives last week held hearings on two pieces of legislation that seek to expand the rights of the LGBT community.
The Domestic-Partner Benefits and Obligations Act, which would provide domestic-partner benefits for the same-sex partners of federal employees, was the subject of a hearing in the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia July 8. The same day, the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would require schools to adopt anti-bullying policies that are inclusive of the LGBT community, was considered in a joint hearing of the House Subcommittees on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education and Healthy Families and Communities.
The hearings marked the first time that both pieces of legislation were considered before Congressional committees.
Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), openly gay prime sponsor of the domestic-partner legislation, testified in favor of the bill during the hearing, as did openly gay director of the Office of Personnel Management John Berry, former Romanian Ambassador Michael Guest and four other supporters.
Only one person, Dr. Frank Page, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, testified against the bill. Page asserted that the legislation “continues the agenda that has been set forth by a very small yet vocal minority in our country.”
Page is a member of President Obama’s 25-member advisory council to the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Baldwin, who noted that her own longtime partner has not been able to share in her employment benefits, said the legislation is not an effort to redefine marriage — an argument raised by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the ranking Republican of the subcommittee — but rather is an attempt to create a level playing field for all federal workers.
Chaffetz contended that the legislation unfairly discriminates against opposite-sex couples who are unmarried, but Baldwin noted that all opposite-sex couples in the country have the option to marry if they’re seeking employment benefits, while gays and lesbians can only do so in a handful of states and are prevented from receiving federal benefits because of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Baldwin, along with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), introduced the bill in May and it currently has 112 cosponsors. Sens. Joseph Leiberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) are spearheading the companion bill in the Senate, which has 24 cosponsors. Baldwin and Lieberman originally proposed the legislation last session, but both bills died in committee.
Obama issued a presidential memorandum last month granting same-sex partners of federal employees and foreign-service workers some benefits, such as access to long-term-care insurance programs, but stopped short of granting all the benefits heterosexual married partners receive, such as access to health insurance, because he said DOMA prevented him from taking such an action.
Meanwhile, the Safe Schools Improvement Act also received Congressional attention.
The legislation would require schools that receive funding from the federal Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act to adopt policies that specifically prohibit bullying stemming from a student’s race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity, among other motivations. The bill would also require states to track cases of classroom bullying and harassment.
Ros-Lehtinen introduced the bill in May, and it currently has 64 cosponsors.
During the hearing, lawmakers listened to testimony about the need for expanded anti-bullying measures from a diverse group of witnesses, including Rona Kaufmann, principal of William Penn Senior High School in York, and Jackie and Josie Andrews of Haddon Heights, N.J., teenage sisters and anti-violence activists.
Sirdenear Walker, mother of 11-year-old Massachusetts student Carl Walker-Hoover, who took his own life in April after persistent antigay taunts at school, also offered her views on the epidemic of classroom harassment.
“After Carl died, I could have stayed home and mourned him but instead I’ve chosen to get involved, to speak out about bullying, and I have learned a lot in a short time,” Walker testified. “The most important thing I’ve learned is that bullying is not an inevitable part of growing up.”
Walker said representatives of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network contacted her shortly after her son’s death and, while she admitted she was initially hesitant to partner with the group — reasoning that her son was too young to identify as gay or straight — her eventual interaction with the organization and the diverse group of students it represents showed her “not how different we all were, but how much common ground we had.”
“I know now that bullying is not a gay issue or a straight issue — it’s a safety issue,” she said. “It’s about what kind of learning environment we want for our children and how far we’re willing to go to protect and teach them ... School bullying is a national crisis, and we need a national solution to deal with it.”