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Taking On City Hall

One man’s fight to get domestic-partnership benefits for city employees.

When Simon Kalay moved to Virginia in 1999, he was looking for freedom and a better life. In Izmir, an ancient city on the Aegean Sea in Turkey where he grew up, he faced cultural obstacles that he described as stifling.

“I’m a Christian, and I’m gay,” he said, adding that he came to America in search of freedom. “But as a gay immigrant, my hopes were dashed.”

When Kalay learned that the city of Alexandria does not offer domestic-partner benefits to same-sex couples, he was disappointed enough to decide to move. Even if the city decides to change its policy now, Kalay won’t benefit because he has decided to move to Boston.

He says that he’ll feel more comfortable in Massachusetts, the only state that allows gay marriage. The thought of living in Virginia, where the General Assembly makes repeated threats to the gay agenda, isn’t at all appealing to him. And so he says he has nothing to gain by advocating that the city of Alexandria include same-sex partners in benefit packages for it employees. But he feels that this is an important discussion. And that’s why Kalay took on City Hall.

“I feel like we are in a Jim Crow era,” he said. “I expected things to be much better.”

KALAY WENT ONLINE, visiting the city’s website to let his elected officials know what he thought about the policy. Filling out an online form that was directed to the mayor and all Council members. The letter, which was dated Nov. 29, chastised the city for not providing civil rights to gays in Alexandria.

“I think it’s just a disgrace that the city of Alexandria does not offer domestic partnership benefits to the same-sex partners of city employees,” Kalay wrote. “Even Austin, Texas does.”

“Is Alexandria part of the anti-gay policies of the draconian anti-gay state Virginia?”

The next day, Councilwoman Joyce Woodson sent at email to Deputy City Manager Mark Jinks.

“Mark, would you please let us know what the consequences might be for domestic partners benefits,” Woodson wrote.

THE SIMPLE INQUIRY led to a memorandum dated March 3 from the city manager’s office. In the memo, City Manager Jim Hartmann outlines what the consequences would be of taking action to change the policy. He said that Kaiser and MAMSI — the two health-insurance providers that cover city employees — have both amended their plans to allow Virginia employers to offer domestic-partner coverage. He also said that a staff analysis of the issue shows that there would be no additional cost to the city. Even where the domestic-partnership benefits are offered, the analysis showed, few employees opt to take them.

“This is because the federal tax law discriminates against domestic partner coverage and considers the value of the employer’s net additional contribution,” Hartmann wrote.

“Also, in many situations, but not always, both of the persons in a domestic partner relationship work, and each often have access to health insurance on a non-taxable basis. The conclusion is that the issue of providing domestic partner health coverage by the city has very little budget impact. This is a policy choice issue.”

The last time this policy issue came before City Council, in the late 1990s, council members voted down a proposal to include a position advocating domestic-partner benefits to the city’s legislative package. With Kalay and others bringing this policy choice forward once again, it’s unclear how the City Council might choose to act. But they’ll have to make a decision before the final version of the budget is passed on April 24.

“Right now, we’re looking at the total budget,” said Vice Mayor Del Pepper, adding that she would support changing the policy. “As the time comes nearer to a vote, you can be sure we’ll talk about this.”

But even though changing the policy would probably have a negligible influence on the bottom line for the city’s budget, the issue of civil rights for gays and lesbians continues to be divisive. This November, for example, a controversial measure will be on the ballot in Virginia to amend the commonwealth’s constitution to ban gay marriage. And many religious leaders in Alexandria oppose the idea of giving domestic-partner benefits to gays.

“The Catholic Church does not see homosexuality as sinful, only the acting out on it,” said Father Dennis Kleinmann, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Alexandria. “So any benefits for gays would be favoring a union that would be a sinful situation because it is opposed to a law of God.”

Councilman Paul Smedberg, the only gay member of City Council, said that the timing seems right to change the policy.

“It would seem to be an appropriate time to do it,” Smedberg said. “This is an issue of fairness, and it’s an issue about localities having the right to make their own decision. I would assume that this would have majority support with the council.”