Gay tax revolt grows
by Matthew S. Bajko
The stripping of marriage rights from same-sex couples in California is giving renewed attention to calls for a national gay tax protest.
A handful of LGBT activists have refused to pay any state or federal income taxes for several years now. They argue that since they are not treated equally under the law as their heterosexual neighbors, they should not have to fork over the money they owe to state or federal governments.
Their protest has largely gone unnoticed or unheeded by the majority of LGBT Americans – until now.
Two days after the passage of Proposition 8, the anti-gay constitutional amendment California voters passed November 4 that bans gays and lesbians from marrying in the Golden State, lesbian singer Melissa Etheridge penned a posting on the Daily Beast blog titled "You can forget my taxes."
She wrote that she would be withholding the half a million dollars she owes the state in taxes this year and urged other LGBT people to do the same.
Because she and her wife, Tammy Lynn Michaels, are no longer afforded the same rights as other Californians under the state constitution, Etheridge wrote that, "Okay, so I am taking that to mean I do not have to pay my state taxes because I am not a full citizen. I mean that would just be wrong, to make someone pay taxes and not give them the same rights, sounds sort of like that taxation without representation thing from the history books."
Etheridge's stance has led to the creation of a Facebook group called "I will join Melissa Ethridge [sic] in refusing to pay CA taxes until I can marry!" San Francisco resident Emily Drennen, a bisexual who this summer married her wife, Lindasusan Ulrich, created the page.
Drennen did not respond to a request for comment. On the Facebook page she wrote, "Singer Melissa Etheridge rails against the passage of the same-sex marriage ban in California – and she won't be paying the state a dime. This group is for Californian LGBTQI citizens and our allies who pledge to withhold paying our 2008 taxes unless our marriage rights are restored."
As of Tuesday, only 19 people had signed up, many being residents of other states.
In July of this year John Bisceglia started writing at http://www.gaytaxprotest.blogspot.com/ about the idea for a national tax equality protest on April 15, 2009. The Bellingham, Washington resident wrote that he used to pay his taxes until he divorced his partner in 2005 and saw how the law mistreated gay couples.
In a statement he released in August, Bisceglia said he had "reached his limit" and would withhold his tax filings until the federal government grants all LGBT Americans and their children the 1,400-plus legal rights and protections civil marriage affords.
"The federal government's discrimination against LGBT families is an abomination; it is cruel to deny our families a marriage certificate while simultaneously doling them out like candy to heterosexuals," he stated. "My hope is that those in the LGBT community with substantial income demand their long overdue rights by taking a stand for justice, for society, and for equality for all Americans."
Palm Springs resident Charles Merrill stopped paying his federal and state taxes four years ago after President Bush urged in his State of the Union speech for Congress to pass a federal amendment banning same-sex marriage in the U.S. Constitution. At the time he and his partner of 18 years, Kevin Boyle, were living on a farm in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina.
Two years ago they moved to California and married this year. He has continued to withhold his federal and state income taxes and is suing the Internal Revenue Service. His lawsuit, Merrill vs. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, is scheduled to be heard by the U.S. Tax Court in San Diego sometime in 2009.
Merrill, 75, is a cousin to the founder of Merrill Lynch & Co. He applauded Etheridge for shining a national spotlight on the gay tax protest. In an interview this week, he said he would gladly pay his taxes, but not before he is afforded the same rights as straight taxpayers.
"I want to pay taxes but I want to pay them as everyone else, not as a second-class citizen," said Merrill. "I am really doing this for the 18,000 couples who got married in California and are denied all those rights."
Should the tax protest snowball into a national movement, he said it would send a strong signal to President-elect Barack Obama to maintain his campaign pledge to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which has been used to justify discriminating against same-sex couples. Merrill noted that in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage is still legal, and California prior to Election Day nearly 30,000 gay and lesbian couples have married, with more exchanging vows in Connecticut now that that state has enacted same-sex marriage.
At a time when governments are hurting for money, a gay tax revolt would have an impact, argued Merrill.
"I think it would be a wake-up call to President-elect Obama to get started on this, these promises he made us. It could turn into a economic problem if enough gays and lesbians stop paying taxes," he said. "It is not extortion or anything, just a reminder of what he said he was going to do."
Not everyone is jumping onto the tax protest bandwagon. Asked about Etheridge's comments by Joy Behar last week on CNN, lesbian actress Cynthia Nixon said withholding her tax payments is "something I am not going to do."
Betty Yee, who represents the Bay Area on California's Board of Equalization, which sets tax policies for the state, supports seeing protests to overturn Prop 8 but stopped short at the notion of a tax revolt.
"I am totally with Melissa and others on continued activism on getting the reversal of Prop 8," said Yee. "I really do want to urge people to do their activism but not paying taxes is going to have harmful effects on other Californians."
It could also lead to painful penalties on protesters' wallets. Yee noted that the state could not only go after the taxes people owe, but also apply interest and late fees that could end up totaling more than the taxes past due.
"Depending on how long before the taxes are returned, paid interest and penalties may accrue to exceed the initial tax liability," she said.
The Human Rights Campaign has not taken any official stance for or against the idea.
"The beauty of our movement is that people get the choice to practice civil disobedience in whatever way they wish," said spokesman Brad Luna. "Obviously, we would encourage people to understand their personal responsibility that comes with practicing that civil disobedience. Nonetheless, we understand people are going to protest these anti-LGBT measures in their own way."
Fred Karger, the founder of Californians Against Hate, which has organized against Prop 8, also took a measured stance when asked if he supported a gay tax revolt.
"I am supportive of every legal approach to get our equal rights. Certainly laws could be questioned and people can protest however they want to. It is a personal decision," said Karger, who said he had no intention of not paying his own taxes. "You got a lot of angry people out there."
Of course anyone opting to join the tax revolt should take precautions should the taxman cometh.
Merrill said he has squirreled away the taxes he should have paid over the last four years in case of the day when he is ordered to hand over the money. He also does not own property and said he has moved a large part of his savings into gold coins, which are hidden away in a secret location – even his partner does not know the whereabouts.
"I put those in a private place that nobody could attack them," he said.