SF marks 20 years of equal benefits
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San Francisco officials celebrated the 20th anniversary of the city's groundbreaking Equal Benefits Ordinance amid a call for new strategies to protect transgender employees.
Speakers on a panel hailed the historic nature of the law, which required companies doing business with San Francisco to offer the same benefits to domestic partners that they offered to straight married workers. And they talked about how it was not easy getting a domestic partner benefits law approved when marriage equality was a blip on activists' radar and many companies were hesitant to back it.
"At the time, we'd just finished a bruising fight to get domestic partner rights," lesbian former supervisor Leslie Katz explained during the June 1 program in City Hall.
Katz, now a Port of San Francisco commissioner, recalled that United Airlines, in particular, was "very concerned," as it "offered a slew of benefits to their employees' spouses."
In fact, it was United and the Air Transport Association that waged a yearslong court fight over the ordinance. Ultimately, the case was won by the city, in large part due to the legal skill of then-deputy city attorney Dennis Aftergut.
"Back in those days, no one thought we would win," former City Attorney Louise Renne said, adding that Aftergut was out of the country and couldn't attend the program. "It was a team effort."
Gay District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, who organized the event, was one of the three activists who came up with the idea for the ordinance. He, attorney Geoff Kors, and city attorney investigator Carol Stuart were all members of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club at the time. They took their proposal to the board's out members, Katz, Tom Ammiano, and Susan Leal, who were successful at seeing it passed 10-0 (then-supervisor Tom Hsieh was absent for the vote, according to the board's November 4, 1996 minutes.)
"It was amazing how the community came together," Sheehy said, crediting former city Human Rights Commission staff member Cynthia Goldstein with developing guidelines for enforcing the ordinance so that it "had teeth."
With President Donald Trump in the White House, Sheehy said that LGBT advocates have to get creative. He said he wants to work with the city administrator to make sure trans people are included in equal benefits policies, and that companies have "meaningful non-discrimination policies on the books."
'United Against United'
In addition to the legal fight, Sheehy discussed the importance of activists' involvement during the "United Against United" boycott that he organized. One memorable action included the late rainbow flag creator Gilbert Baker and others donning purple Tinky Winky costumes and picketing outside the United ticket office downtown. (The late televangelist Jerry Falwell had said that Tinky Winky, one of the Teletubbies on the then-popular PBS series, was gay.)
"Tinky Winkys were handcuffed on TV," Sheehy said, recalling the visuals of them being loaded into a paddy wagon. (The protesters were driven around the corner and released.)
Ken McNeely, a gay man who's president of AT&T California, said his company was one of the early supporters of the ordinance.
"When AT&T got involved in equal benefits it was a lonely place in the corporate world," he said, adding that the company had 10 years earlier created its LGBT resource group.
But AT&T was not based in San Francisco, and in fact had employees in all 50 states.
"It was a big decision, but it was an easy decision," he said.
In 1996, AT&T became the largest corporation to offer equal benefits.
Kors, now a Palm Springs city councilman, wrote in an email that he's gratified by the success of the Equal Benefits Ordinance.
"At the time, very few businesses or nonprofits provided domestic partner benefits and only Kaiser offered domestic partner health care," Kors wrote.
Catholic Charities was one of those nonprofits that contracted with the city. Katz said that employees could designate an "adult member of household" to receive the benefits, as a way to comply with the law.
In an interview, Stuart recalled the 1989 and 1990 fights over domestic partner registries in San Francisco. Voters rejected one in 1989, then the next year then-supervisor Harry Britt, a gay man, put a measure on the ballot that was approved by voters.
"The religious right challenged it and put a 'no' initiative on the ballot in 1991 and we won that," Stuart said.
The Equal Benefits Ordinance has had a lasting legacy. City Administrator Naomi Kelly said that in 1997 when the law was first passed, 500 companies in the country offered domestic partner benefits. Today, Kelly said that more than 8,000 businesses offer domestic partner benefits, all 50 states have companies that are compliant with San Francisco's law, and 19 jurisdictions in seven states followed San Francisco's lead.
Kors said that when he was executive director at Equality California, the first law he worked on was one to provide equal benefits statewide – "the first and only statewide law of its kind in the nation," he said.
"I am now working on expanding these laws to include transgender health care, which [former state Senator] Mark Leno and EQCA passed for California and I recently drafted and passed in Palm Springs," added Kors.