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Marriage Means Something

Every once in a while the whole notion of being married, or not being married, becomes a lot more real than it is most of the time. After seven years together, like a lot of other same-sex couples, the hubby and I can go about our daily lives without thinking much about the fact that we’re not, and cannot be, married to one another and thus our family doesn’t have the security that the protections of marriage offer. But there are moments when that reality comes into sharp focus.

As I write this, there’s a stack of papers next to my keyboard. In preparation for the R Families Cruise, and our on-ship nuptials, I’ve got various readings, vows, and versions of the ceremony to read either during lunch or my commute home. And, after printing all of that up, I sat down to read Dana’s post about a routine call to ask about car insurance that gave me bit of a flashback to my own experience in dealing with retirement accounts.Fortunately, Dana’s experience ended well.

The other day, I called to ask a question about our car insurance. The rep wouldn’t answer, but asked “Do you have a power of attorney on the policy?” I replied that I’d been on the policy for many years, and had never been asked about POA. The rep still hesitated.

Give it a shot, I thought to myself. “We’re married in Massachusetts.”

“Oh,” said the rep. “So you’re her legal spouse?” Matter of fact, not with any surprise.

“Yes,” I replied, and the rep went ahead and gave me the information I needed.

This from a call center in Texas at a conservative insurance company focused on serving the military. Marriage means something, and the better people of the world recognize it, whether official laws and policies do or not. To quote another famous Texan, “Freedom is on the march.”

Marriage means something alright. I’ve posted countless times about it what happens to our families as a consequence of not having the rights and protections of marriage, and the sad truth is that there’s no shortage of those stories. Just yesterday I read about Bobbi and Sandi Cote-Whitacer and the shortcomings of civli unions.

Every time Bobbi Cote-Whitacre puts off a doctor’s visit or pays full price for prescription medicine, she’s reminded of the limitations of civil unions.

Cote-Whitacre’s health coverage ended when she retired to care for her ailing mother. Under Vermont law, Cote-Whitacre, 60, could have joined the health plan of her partner, Sandi Cote-Whitacre. But Sandi’s employer – the federal government – doesn’t recognize civil unions. So each month, Cote-Whitacre shells out nearly $175 for full-price prescription medicines. And she hopes that she’ll escape illness or injury.

In the seven years since Vermont became the first state to create civil unions, couples have uncovered countless ways in which same-sex unions differ from heterosexual marriage. Because the federal government doesn’t acknowledge civil unions, same-sex couples miss out on the federal benefits afforded heterosexual married couples. And because many states have conflicting laws, a couple’s rights can evaporate when they cross the state line.

“Even though it’s touted as being the same, it’s not,” said Mary Bouvier of Jeffersonville, Vt., who established a civil union in 2000 with her longtime partner, Moira Donovan. “Once we got our civil union, if anything happened to either one of us in this state, we were great. But if we were in another state, it didn’t have to be recognized.”

“In a lot of ways, it hasn’t affected us as necessarily a benefit,” Bouvier said.

The Cote-Whitacer family’s story reminds of one I blogged about earlier, about Rob Scanlan and Jay Baker.

This being the land of civil unions, Rob Scanlan and Jay Baker figured things were looking up for an aging gay couple in the suburbs.

Then, a little over a month ago, Rob was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – ALS – and they were reminded that there isn’t equality.

It’s different for gays, even in a blue state with a civil union law. The problem is not that ALS is a death sentence. It’s that Congress and the federal government recognize only marriage when it comes to taxes, Social Security and medical issues.

Because federal law does not recognize civil unions, Rob and Jay could be faced with liquidating everything – home, savings, retirement – to pay for costly care. Meanwhile, I’m told, a married heterosexual couple can sometimes take advantage of federal benefits so that a surviving spouse can at least protect the home.

Rob and Jay’s case is not entirely clear yet, but the inequity remains.

“You have a couple that has been together all this time. They have paid their taxes and they have contributed to the community,” said Gary Buseck, legal director for the Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders in Boston. “Why are they treated differently? There is no answer.”

Well, there is the homosexual marriage emergency, the crisis congressional leaders are all lathered up about.

Two monogamous silver-haired guys living a quiet, boring life in the suburbs. We need to amend the constitution because of this?

And there are other stories.

Vermont attorney Beth Robinson recently represented a woman who found herself in dire financial straits when her partner died in a car accident. After the couple established a civil union in Vermont, Robinson’s client gave birth to their child and became a stay-at-home mother. Her partner was the family breadwinner, said Robinson, who represented three same-sex couples in the case that prompted that state’s civil unions law.

The federal government eventually agreed to transfer Social Security survivor benefits to the couple’s child. But because the government doesn’t recognize same-sex partnerships, Robinson’s client was barred from reaping survivor’s benefits for herself. The loss of income proved too much of a burden, Robinson said. She was forced to sell her home.

There’s Laurel Hester’s story, and Sam Beamont’s story, and countless other stories of what happens to our families. Like the article says, we pay taxes, we pay for health insurance, we contribute to Social Security and our pensions, but because we’re considered “nonfamily households.” Even couples like Scanlan and Baker who’ve been together 30 years, or the Cote-Whitacer family with 41 years together.

As a result, we essentially subsidize the same benefits for married heterosexuals that are denied to our families.

That leads me to ask to what degree that’s true of the rest of the “nonfamily” households out there. To what degree are we subsidizing “state sanctioned families” with pensions and social security that can’t be inherited, taxes paid because we can’t file jointly if it benefits us, health insurance paid for because we can’t get partner/spousal coverage, etc. with what’s sometimes bitterly referred to as “the gay tax,” because what we can’t pass on to or inherit from our partners simply goes back into the system.

And to the degree that “nonfamily families” are subsidizing “state sanctioned families,” why should we?

In a sense, having no options besides civil unions or marriages recognized only in state is a little like driving cross country without a spare tire. You don’t think about it until you have a blow-out. Then, not only do you realize you have no spare, but no one else on the road going to stop and lend you theirs. And the rub is that you paid for a part of their spares, every one, but can’t get one for yourself.

So, yeah. Marriage means something. It means something on a personal level. Just reading over the ceremonies I printed up this morning started to get me choked up, even though we’ve been together for seven years. It means something. But the reality is, outside of our circle of family and friends, the vows we make, the rings we exchange and the commitment we’ve made to each other won’t really mean anything.

At least not when we have the inevitable blowout on the highway of life. Without a spare.

Crossposted from the Republic of T.

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