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Mr. President, Here's Another Thing to Change

Mr. President, Here's Another Thing to Change


Journalist and mom Katia Hetter hates that her partner has to pay taxes on her health care benefits. Could that change under Obama?

I'm trying to pick up multicolored blocks, find the missing giraffe for the stuffed Noah's ark, and keep the baby from pulling over the flat-screen, when my wife walks through the door. "It's the annual screw-you letter," she says, handing over the January reminder that my health care is considered taxable income. The married guy who works at the desk next to hers doesn't have to pay taxes for his wife's health care. But because I'm Kim's domestic partner and not her legal spouse, she has to pay taxes on additional "income" of $10,168.32.

I've been on my wife's newspaper union's health plan since before I gave birth over a year ago. In this economic recession, I know we're lucky: Her company is a leader in domestic-partner coverage. But don't get me started on the 1,100 other ways our relationships aren't equal to those of married straight people. If I get too mad about not getting her Social Security benefits or about the thousands of dollars we paid to lawyers to secure hospital visitation rights, it won't be the baby smashing bananas into the floor. It'll be me.

When I'm not trying to keep up with the hip lesbian mommies in my Brooklyn neighborhood, I remind myself that President Bush is gone. The evening news showed him leaving on that not-presidential-anymore helicopter. Maybe things really will change under President Obama.

I decide to call him. Why not? As a young journalist at U.S. News & World Report , I called Clinton officials, U.S. senators, and agency officials all the time. I even flew on Air Force One a couple of times.

"Press office!" The woman who answers the phone sounds so cheerful. "How are you doing today?" These people just took power; no wonder they're so happy.

I tell her I want to know the president's position on legislation proposed in 2007 by Sen. Gordon Smith and Rep. Jim McDermott that would have made my benefits tax-free, just like a straight married person. (The legislation died in the last Congress -- no hope that President Bush would sign it -- but thanks to Smith and McDermott for trying!)

Cheerful press lady asks me to e-mail my request. The next morning, while I'm feeding the baby breakfast, an assistant press secretary calls back. He mentions that President Obama was a cosponsor of the Senate legislation and promises to e-mail me a statement soon.

Wait. The press office called me back in less than 24 hours? Never mind that our country is fighting two wars and the economy is collapsing. I can't get the dishwasher repairman to return my calls that fast.

"President Obama believes that the federal legal rights and benefits currently provided on the basis of marital status should be extended to same-sex couples in civil unions and other legally recognized unions," the statement reads. "In the Senate, President Obama cosponsored the Tax Equity for Domestic Partner and Health Plan Beneficiaries Act, and as president he'd sign legislation fixing the inequity problem."

The activists at the Human Rights Campaign, who've had to play defense for the last eight years, sound positively ebullient. "There's definitely an excitement now about being able to make a difference in people's lives," says HRC legislative director Allison Herwitt. But when I call congressional staffers, no one knows if the legislation will pass this year -- or if it'll even be introduced. And my wife is still grumpy. "I'll believe it when I see it," she says.

I decide to cut her some slack. She's fought for equal rights since she got her first girlfriend in high school. Back in the 1970s, the only gay-straight alliance was the group of kids who called her a lezzie in the hallway. And she's working two jobs so I can stay at home with the baby. She's tired. But I'm hopeful: Maybe by the time our 2009 tax bill is due, we won't have to pay that tax anymore.

Time to go clean up that banana on the floor.

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Katia Hetter