Thursday, June 20, 2024

It is about time.

As a member of the City Council I was overjoyed when, at midnight on May 17, 2004, Cambridge City Hall threw open its doors to issue the very first marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the nation. I was proud to be serving as an elected representative of my community that night. As an openly gay, African-American woman, I recognized that our nation was taking another huge step forward in its promise of providing equal civil rights and equal protections to all its citizens.

Yet, for all my pride that day, and for all the cheering crowds, I appreciated that what we were celebrating that night in 2004 was not the end of the struggle for equality, but merely one very visible step forward in a long, long journey. Massachusetts was the first state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage. But our story did not end there. The 50 individual states have been called the “laboratories of democracy.” It seems clear that the experiments in those laboratories have led our country in interesting, and sometimes unexpected, directions.

With the 50 states tinkering with new laws and new approaches to addressing various issues, state laws will inevitably come into conflict with federal laws in certain areas. One such area is the way health benefits for same-sex married couples and heterosexual couples are taxed at the federal and state level. This is not something we anticipated in 2004, but, being a pioneer in legalizing same-sex marriages, there were no states to look to for guidance in drafting our legislation, or ascertain all the areas where our state laws may conflict with federal laws.

Corporations such as Google, Facebook and Cisco recognized that same-sex couples are taxed differently than heterosexual couples, and they have each taken steps to offset the extra tax burden. These innovative steps provide municipalities with a blueprint for how to tackle the issue. As a civic leader, I have been paying close attention to this in recent years.

Cambridge currently provides health benefits to same-sex spouses of 22 city and school department employees. Because federal tax policy considers dependent benefits for same-sex couples as taxable income, these employees pay additional taxes on their health benefits that employees in heterosexual marriages don’t. We estimate that these 22 employees pay between $1,500 to $3,000 more in taxes — a sizable sum in prosperous times, and a significant sum in more turbulent economic times like we’re experiencing.

To offset this disparity, I introduced a policy order in the Council this past January calling upon the city to address the matter head on. I am happy to report that in July, Cambridge became the first municipality in the nation to eradicate this onerous tax burden. We are now offering same-sex married employees a quarterly stipend valued at 20% of the taxable income paid by the employee for health and dental benefits. At current rates, the estimated cost to the city of this new policy will be approximately $12,000 per year, and approximately $21,000 per year to cover same-sex married couples in the School Department.

I hope that as goes Cambridge, so goes the country. I have received correspondence from same-sex couples across the nation expressing how difficult it has been to bear the added burden of “the punishment tax.” I have also received many heartless, bigoted e-mails expressing fierce resistance to the notion that gay people deserve the same civil rights and liberties that every American has. These e-mails only strengthen my resolve to continue fighting for what I know is right.

The Tax Parity for Health Plan Beneficiaries Act (H.R. 2088), introduced in the U.S. Congress by Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., and Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen, R-Fla., would eliminate the tax on health benefits for same-sex married couples.  I am hopeful that the actions of Cambridge will provide a bit of momentum for this bill to win passage.

Although it may not be happening at the pace we’d like, we continue to make progress in the long march toward equality. In February, the Obama administration took a step in the right direction when it stopped defending the constitutionality of Section 3 of the odious Defense of Marriage Act. Just last month, New York became the largest state to legalize same-sex marriage. With each victory, big and small, it becomes all the more apparent that it is a matter of when, not if, all 50 states in the union recognize and legalize same-sex marriage. I am proud to know that it all began in Cambridge, and that Cambridge continues to lead in this area. We are only too happy to shine a light and serve as an example and inspiration to our fellow citizens as we continue to strive for a more perfect union.

Denise Simmons, city councillor