Monday, December 20, 2010

The Taxing Matter of Health Care

At the end of 2009, five months before Max was born, I was laid off from my job in the publishing industry. I was naturally disappointed, however I considered myself very fortunate that my family would have the means to live on one salary for a temporary period of undeterminable length. Stewart and I decided that during that time-period I would be Max’s stay-at-home dad, which of course is what this blog is all about. One reason we felt we could do this is the fact that Stewart’s employer, as mine had, extended domestic partner benefits to committed same-sex couples. So the plan was that I, along with Max when he was born, would go on Stewart’s health care plan. I was pleased that as a gay married couple (married legally in Canada in February 2008) we had the same options that my heterosexual married peers have.

Little did I know, however, that same sex domestic partner benefits are not equal to the ones that married heterosexual couples receive. This is not the fault of employers, but of the federal law that does not recognize same-sex marriages -- even those legally entered into in a state or country that does recognize them.  Gay employees who are fortunate enough to work for employers that extend health insurance to domestic partners are unfortunate enough to be taxed on the value of that coverage — a tax that is not paid by their heterosexual married colleagues.  That is because, under federal law, employer-provided health benefits for domestic partners are counted as income if the partner is not considered a dependent.  The tax laws for who can be declared a dependant are very strict; for example, anyone who accumulates more than $3,650 of gross income in a year cannot be considered a dependant for tax purposes. Even unemployed, I do not fall into this category.

So tax is owed. The amount is based on the value of the partner’s coverage paid by the employer. As a result, employees with domestic partners will pay about $1,069 more a year in taxes, on average, than a married employee with the same coverage, according to a 2007 report by M.V. Lee Badgett, research director of the Williams Institute, which studies sexual orientation policy issues.  Given the escalating cost of health care, those numbers are estimated to be even higher now. So, despite my initial happiness that Stewart’s employer would extend benefits to me, it turned out that it was cheaper for me to elect to go on Cobra than it was for me to go on Stewart’s health plan.

Hopefully this baldly discriminating policy will change soon. In the meantime, some employers are recognizing the significant money crunch that the policy can unfairly foist on their LGBT workers, and are doing something about it. For example, last week I was very happy to hear Facebook announce that, beginning in the New Year, those employees whose same-sex domestic partners are on the company’s medical, dental or vision plans will be reimbursed by the company for the resulting federal tax hike that the government will be hitting them with. A spokesman for Facebook said that employees’ W-2 forms would be adjusted so that they wouldn’t have to pay for the extra tax.  In other words, their income will be increased just enough to cover the extra costs.

Facebook joins a small but growing number of large companies that are currently doing this, or are committed to doing so in the beginning of the new year, including: Barclays, Google, Cisco, Kimpton Hotels, Bain & Company and the Gates Foundation.  It is clearly the right thing to do, but it also makes business sense for them.  I am sure they recognize that in the ultra-competitive world of big business, talented LGBT job applicants will be more likely to sign on with them than their competitors, seeing these companies’ gestures as both a sign that their office environment is gay-friendly, as well as financially beneficial to them when comparing similar offers.

I think it is great that these big companies are making up this shortfall, but let’s face it: the law needs to be changed.  It is not these companies’ responsibility to foot the bill for basic equality over everyone else.  Gay employees working for any company should not have to shell out more to insure their spouses’ medical coverage than their straight colleagues.  That is lost money that could have gone towards many other things, including the care of their children, who are silent victims of this discriminatory law.  Unfortunately it is but one of many federal and state laws that show that married gay couples do not have rights equal to those of heterosexual married couples. While it is absolutely wonderful that Congress finally repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this past weekend, the gay community and its friends cannot grow complacent. There is still much to change, for the sake of basic equality and for the sake of the many LGBT-run American families not as financially fortunate as ours.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Go Navy, Beat Army!

This is a guest post by Stewart, aka "Papa":

Yesterday, Jacob and I took Max to his first ever sporting event: the 111th Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We went with Max’s Uncle Jon and cousin Ben. Ben is a high-school senior applying to the Naval Academy, so his enthusiasm for all things Navy prompted our trip down and made Midshipmen fans of us all. Ben had on his Navy sweatshirt, and even Max got into the act, wearing a special bib emblazoned with Navy’s rally cry: “Go Navy, Beat Army!” (Army’s slogan is “Go Army, Beat Navy!” – so it seems that these military schools are no nonsense even down to their amazingly literal rallying cries).

The game was a blast. Navy beat Army 31-17, the 9th straight victory for the Midshipmen over their rivals from West Point. The game featured the longest touchdown pass by Navy in the history of the rivalry – 77 yards – and Navy’s longest fumble return for a touchdown in their school’s history – 99 yards. During this incredibly exciting latter score, which occurred near the end of the first half, Jacob and I were locked in the “family” bathroom at Lincoln Financial Field, doing what else -- changing Max’s poopy diaper. Ah, the glories of parenting a baby! (And by the way, ladies, the “family” bathroom is for parents in need of the changing table, not for you all to hang out in to fix your makeup together. We waited 10 minutes for the bathroom to open up, and finally out came five grown women smacking their lips and popping lipstick tops back on. And for this we missed the 99 yard fumble return for a score?! For shame!)

When I told my hairdresser last week that Jacob and I were taking Max to the game, she told me that “you don’t want to do that” because the game will be “too crowded, too cold and too noisy” for a seven month old. Don’t get me wrong, those are legitimate concerns, but I was somewhat perturbed that my hairdresser (who I adore and who adores Max), while not being a parent herself, was instructing me not to bring Max to the game for reasons that she amazingly must have thought I hadn’t considered. Not wishing to get into it with her, I simply stated: “oh well, that is one of the perks Max will discover from having two dads; he gets to do things that no other self-respecting family would do, like lounging around the apartment all day in his underwear, eating last night’s leftover pizza for breakfast . . . or going to a football game in the northeast in December at 7 months old.” This got an approving nod from my hairdresser, who I had given a new way to look at the decision – one born not out of parental irresponsibility, but out of a boyish sense of adventure.

And I am so thrilled that we went, because we had the time of our lives. Max loves crowds, so we weren’t worried in the slightest about the capacity crowd of 69,223 in attendance at the game. Jacob and I often laugh that Max seems to have a reputation among those that spend time with him as a serene baby. But that’s because for some reason he decides to be on his best behavior in front of others. When he’s alone with us, it can often be a very different story! I like to think that’s because he knows we love him unconditionally, so when just with us he feels secure enough to be as grumpy as he wants. True to form, Max was amazingly content at the game, and even managed to win over the Army fans sitting behind us, despite his “Go Navy” bib – now that takes charm given this fierce rivalry! 

Regarding the weather, I’d been tracking it on for weeks. If it was bitter cold, or rainy, Jacob was going to go to half the game with his brother and nephew while I watched Max at our hotel, and vice-versa for the other half. Fortunately, it was 45 degrees with not a wisp of wind, which made the decision to bring Max to the stadium a no-brainer. He loves being outside, so much so that, as Jacob has mentioned in other posts, sometimes we’ll take him outside just because we know it has a calming effect on him. He was born in Georgia, so I think he’s a southern country boy at heart (just don’t expect to hear any country music in our household – I have my limits!).

Regarding the noise, I am no stranger to football games and know how loud they can get. I must admit when Jacob first mentioned the possibility of going to the game, the first thing that flashed through my mind was the celebration at the end of last year’s Super Bowl. The New Orleans Saints had just won the NFL championship and their quarterback, Drew Brees, was named MVP. He was seen down on the field while his one year old son sat calmly in his arms through who knows how much celebratory fanfare clamoring around him. The reason? His son was wearing black junior Peltor headphones that blocked out most of the noise. But just as importantly to me, natch, the boy looked absolutely adorable wearing them.

I knew that taking Max to the big Army/Navy game would give me the perfect excuse to buy the headphones for him for Hanukkah. It was pretty hysterical when I sat him on the bed in the hotel room to size them on his head before heading to the game. I slipped them over Max’s ears, but his head was turned away from me, so I couldn’t get a good sense of the fit. I called Max’s name to get his attention so that he’d look at me to make it easier . . . and nothing. I called again, louder . . . and nothing. He was still looking away, and I was getting pretty exasperated. Jacob stood behind me just cracking up. “I guess they work” was what he finally said, through a smile.

And it’s a good thing they did. Before the game started there was a lot of pomp and circumstance, as is befitting for an event nicknamed “America’s Game.” After literally a dozen parachuters descended from the heavens onto the field, four Apache attack helicopters chopped their way low over the stadium crowd, followed by the scream of three Hornet fighter jets. Then, after either team scored a touchdown or a field goal, a cannon would blast, including for extra points, as well as at the end of each quarter of play. It being a high-scoring game, that made for 18 cannon blasts in all! Oh, and they have fireworks at the game’s conclusion too!

If it isn’t obvious from this description, the Army/Navy game is a fantastic event for kids, and I can’t recommend it highly enough as a family outing for those who have them. Seeing the stands full of wildly enthusiastic West Point cadets in full regalia in one corner, and Annapolis midshipmen in full regalia in the other, is simply an awesome site. While the rivalry is intense, the common military purpose of both sides means that it remains a friendly one, both between the schools themselves and fans like us in the stands. We had multiple military academy students help us find our way through the maze of the Philly subway system and stadium complex, and they all could not have been nicer. Add to that the parachuters, helicopters, airplanes, humvees out front, fireworks, and – oh yeah – a heck of an entertaining and competitive college football game, and it would be impossible not to have a great time. Teaching your kids about the honor and sacrifice our of nation’s troops – and serving as a sobering reminder for us adults as well – is an extra bonus that simply can’t be quantified.  

The games are mostly held in the upcoming years either in Philly or Baltimore and either city, with tons of other things to do there, would make for an excellent December weekend getaway for the whole family. Hopefully we’ll be back very soon, not only for the game, but to scan the corner stands for our handsomely uniformed nephew going crazy amongst his fellow midshipmen after every Navy score – fingers crossed!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Raising Kids, Raising Hope

Over the past couple of months, the “It Gets Better” video campaign created by Dan Savage to combat the bullying of LGBT youth has exploded from a small grass-roots project to utter ubiquity, in which it seems like everybody and their PFLAG-waving grandmothers have sent in a video. And not just human beings either -- each new day it seems like a different corporation has gotten into the act. Of course the project’s popularity is nothing but a good thing for struggling gay kids out there, but when you see reality-TV faux-celebrities like those from the MTV show “Jersey Shore” beginning to post “It Gets Better” videos, it is hard not to feel like enough is enough already.

That said, there is one important group near and dear to my heart for which the growth of this project has served well – gay dads. When we submitted our video in late September, the project was only a little over a week old, and there were only a hundred or so submissions. (There are now over 5,000!) Besides Dan Savage’s own video, featuring himself and his partner Terry and incorporating still photos of their son, we didn’t see any other videos than ours that featured gay couples with kids. That may be why Dan Savage emailed us personally to thank us for posting and to congratulate us on our family. At the time, we were quite shocked that it seemed like we were the only other gay family featured in the project. After all, in those hundred videos we scrolled through when posting our own, we saw gay people from all walks of life talking about how their lives got better after high-school -- but where were the gay guys and gals raising children?
To be sure, that representation is much more important for LGBT kids to see than some gay celebrity who reached a level of fame (usually, ahem, by staying in the closet well into adulthood) that these kids will almost certainly never experience, and probably don’t aspire to. On the other hand, there are definitely LGBT kids out there who would love the experience of raising a child some day, but are feeling miserable because they fear that they are doomed to the unenviable choice of either living their life open and honestly as an out gay person and sacrificing their dream of having a family, or staying in the closet to become a parent through the disastrous lie of a straight marriage. I personally know several people who told me that when they came out they felt like they were sacrificing the option to have kids some day.

And here is where the tremendous growth of Dan Savage’s project over the past month or so has real value, because its popularity has resulted in not only all those annoying celebrity videos out there, but -- unlike when we made ours -- there are now a plethora of videos by gay parents on the channel as well. For example, a couple of weeks ago reported that The Pop Luck Club, a Los Angeles based organization of gay dads, prospective dads, and their families, put out a compelling and powerful “It Gets Better” video. The video features short snippets of testimony from 13 dads who relate their stories of coming out, meeting their husbands, ultimately deciding to have children, and how rewarding those experiences have been for them. And they are not the only ones. Videos like these are so important because they show LGBT teens that you can be both openly gay and have a family of your own some day. I think that message will brighten these kids’ views of their futures much more than what a celebrity or corporation might craft for the project through their PR firms.

Stewart and I were initially hesitant to put our family on video in such a public setting as youtube, but we realized that the simple fact that our family exists as it does is too important for the next generation to see to let what little amount of privacy we gave up stand in the way. We are thrilled that so many other gay parents have realized the same thing, and we think that Max will be super proud of his family’s part in this project when he gets older (though he’ll likely be mad that we didn’t edit out his big spit-up in the middle of the video!)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

All in the Family

I’ve written a lot on this blog about how lucky we are to have Max. And of course that’s true in spades. But Max is a pretty lucky kid too. And one reason is his 14 first cousins. Yes, you read that right – Max has 14 first cousins, and they are all amazingly wonderful to Max – be it his 15 month old cousin Greyson or his 22 year old cousin Noah, or any of the 12 kids in-between.

Max isn't the only one my nieces and nephews like to carry!
I was reminded of this fact last week during Thanksgiving. That is my favorite holiday because it is the one time all year that I know I will get to see all 14 nieces and nephews, not to mention their parents and grandparents – comprising of my parents, siblings and in-laws. This is no mean feat. After all, we all live in three different states, several of my nephews and nieces are off at college, and several more are busy teenagers immersed in all sorts of time-sucking high school activities and sports. So when we do get everybody together – like at Thanksgiving – I am particularly grateful, and I simply cannot get over how amazingly well my nephews and nieces get along with one another. They are an incredibly close set of cousins. Despite many of them being in the traditionally aloof “too cool for school” tween and teenage years, they are clearly very affectionate with one another and genuinely care about, and are interested in, each other’s lives.

Cousins Hannah A. and Ben

But I am particularly touched and grateful for how nurturing they are with Max. At one point during Thanksgiving, my sister Rebecca took Max from us for what was intended to be a couple of minutes. When she came back empty-handed, she quickly dispelled our knee-jerk concern by explaining that our nephews and nieces had spotted her with Max and literally lined up to take turns holding him once Rebecca was through. The fact that Max was being passed around like a hot potato from one set of capable arms to another not only made our nieces and nephews happy, but made us happy too. For one, it gave us the rare opportunity to hang out and chat with people unencumbered by the demands of the baby. More importantly, though, it demonstrated just how fortunate Max is to have so many people around him who are interested in him and care for his well-being.

At Max's bris with his cousins (l-r) Ben, Sarah and Josh

Max has a cousin Luke, my sister’s 4 year-old, who spent much of his Thanksgiving playing games with his 10 year old niece Rachel. Now, all he can talk about is getting together with her again so that they can continue their games. Knowing that someday soon that will be Max demanding more time to spend with his favorite nieces and nephews, because they are so good to him, simply warms my heart. 

Cousins Rachel and Luke play at Thanksgiving

I get particularly emotional when it comes to Max and his best-bud cousins because I wasn’t quite as fortunate growing up. While, like Max, I am a youngest cousin who grew up with many older cousins, I did not experience the closeness with them that Max already seems to have with his cousins. In fact, I was very jealous of my older brothers and sisters. I am the youngest by 5 years, with a 15 year gap between my eldest brother and me, and my siblings had cousins on both sides of the family who were either the same age as they were or pretty close to their age, while I did not. Therefore, to my kid eyes it seemed like my siblings had, in our cousins, built-in friends for holidays and other family gatherings through which they could forge close relationships. For example, some of my siblings went to summer camp with their cousins and some of them would visit my grandparents in Florida together. When I was little, and my whole family would go up to my mom’s parents’ house for Thanksgiving in Rhode Island, I would be very jealous because all of my brothers and sisters seem to have playmates except for me.

Cousin Hannah D. introduces a skeptical Max to the ocean

One part of parenting that we always hear recited is that we want for our kids what we wish we had for ourselves growing up. That certainly applies here. I know Max will be close to all of his cousins in a way I wasn’t growing up with mine (though I am very fortunate to have since gotten close to them). Max is only a few months younger than his cousin Greyson, less than two years younger than his cousin Tyler, and less than four years younger than his cousin “little Luke” (Esther’s boy, as opposed to “big Luke”, Stewart’s sister’s oldest son). These three kids will be like older brothers to Max, showing him the ropes and most definitely getting him into trouble!

Max flanked by cousins Tyler (l) and Greyson (r)

But not only that, I truly feel that Max will develop close relationships with his older cousins as well, and will look tremendously forward to seeing them at family occasions, and hopefully even more frequently than that. And given the significant age difference, that means a lot to me. These kids have a million “cooler” activities that they can pursue rather than spend part of their holiday looking after their slobbering mess of a 6 month old cousin, Max. The fact that they line up for the opportunity to do so speaks volumes about their character. Stewart and I should be so lucky that Max learns to emulate them. They are a special, special bunch.