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Equal Benefits for Same-Sex Partners

It appears from an editorial in my hometown newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that faculty at state universities in Pennsylvania will soon be getting access to domestic partner benefits. This is great news, but not as great news as the editors seem to believe.

I have a quibble:well, really more than a quibble:with the way that the editors describe these benefits as putting”gay and lesbian faculty members on equal footing for benefits with colleagues at public and private colleges here and across the nation.”(my emphasis) These benefits might be called many things; for example,”useful”or”beneficial,”not to mention”overdue.”However,”equal”is not a word to use in describing these benefits.

Even when employers provide the exact same benefits to their heterosexual and lesbian and gay employees, what those employees receive is often demonstrably not equal. The federal government and many states step in between the employer and the employee to ensure that same-sex relationships are not put on equal footing with different-sex relationships. To this end, they tax the value of benefits:most notably expensive health insurance benefits:when provided to same-sex partners but not when provided to the spouses of married, heterosexual employees.

Lesbian and gay employees can avoid the federal income tax only if they can show that their partner is also their”dependent”for tax purposes, something that heterosexuals are not required to do. Moreover, all of the uncertainty surrounding the tax treatment of same-sex couples makes even this showing difficult. My sister, who is in a lesbian relationship and a stay at home mom for her three children, clearly qualifies as my sister-in-law’s dependent for tax purpose. But my sister-in-law had to fight with her employer to stop withholding tax on the value of the health insurance premiums paid for my sister:after she had to fight with her employer to provide those benefits to begin with and then had to go to Connecticut to enter into a civil union because a New Jersey domestic partnership simply was not sufficient evidence (at least for her employer) of their commitment. So, use whatever other adjective you think best describes the belated extension of domestic partner benefits to lesbian and gay employees, just don’t call them”equal.”

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5 Responses to

  1. brat says:

    Right. My partner was laid off on June 30th, and I can thankfully cover her on my health and dental insurances (she’s a cancer survivor). But if we lived in a queer hostile state (most US locales), she’d be in big trouble and we’d both be looking to leave that state.

    I will take a hit on my federal taxes thanks to her coverages, as you point out. And the dependancy minimums are so low as to be laughable (basically you’re not working at all). However, my non-queer colleagues have been increasingly angry and indiginant as I explain just how bizarre our situation is, although on paper, it looks much like theirs (a spouse is laid off, and the scramble for health coverage begins).

    We DO live in a state with a CU scheme, but as that awkwardly plays out, more and more non-queer people are learning just how un-equal and surreal that is when compared to the benefits of marriage. It’s the slim solace I take from this situation, that at least my colleagues are getting one hell of an indirect lesson of what equality is and isn’t.

  2. Anthony Infanti says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, brat, both here and with your colleagues. We can’t expect others to understand the many ways in which our lives are more difficult unless we explain it to them. Keep telling your story, and I wish your partner luck in her search for a new job!

  3. Nicky Grist says:

    This is a window into a widespread problem. Federal taxes on domestic partnership benefits (and uncooperative employers) equally affect different-sex partners, many of whom are boycotting marriage until everyone can marry. Veterans, low-income people and people with disabilities are priced out of marriage by regulations (mostly federal) that would disqualify them from necessary health coverage.

    Health insurance is a potential coalition-building issue for all unmarried people, including same-sex couples, different-sex couples, singles and non-traditional families. The Alternatives to Marriage Project, a national 501c3 working to end marital status discrimination (unmarried-dot-org) is putting together a position paper on universal health coverage as an unmarried issue. We’d love to have help and feedback from feminist law professors!

  4. bob coley jr says:

    Although this comment is a little off the focus of this blog,

  5. bob coley jr says:

    glad to see this is a problem many wish to correct. What reason could a person with disabilities have for making an effort to work, be single, get training and build a life when each effort is countered with a lost benefit that was needed to embark on the journey in the first place. Many thanks to those that are fighting for those whose lives are affected. Gender, disability, sexual peferance, nationality, race and all the rest, should not determine if one is to benefit from society.

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