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Speaking with the Speaker

This morning I had one of those mornings when I look around and ask myself “What the hell am I doing here?” I was invited to take part in the Maria Leavey Breakfast series, which gets blogger types around the table with various and sundry political types. I wasn't able to break bread with Grover, but this morning I got some face time with Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. It wasn't until I stepped off the elevator in the Capitol and started looking for the room number of the meeting that I realized it was the door with “Office of the Speaker” emblazoned above it in gold letters.

That was when I asked myself what the hell I was doing there?  Since when do I rate an hour or more of the Speaker's time? Did somebody make a mistake with the guest list? Did they check my pageviews and traffic stats? Then again, if I now find I'm offered a place at the table, I might as well take a seat. Well, For what it's worth, I got in, got a seat, and got to ask a question. The audio and transcript aren't up yet, and I'll link to it when it's available, I think my question actually threw Pelosi off for a minute. (Just a minute, though. She quickly got back on message.)

I wasn't sure I was going to ask a question at all. In settings like this, I tend to do more listening than talking, and need time to go off an analyze things later. But after hearing Nancy's remarks, I knew I had to ask a question if I got a chance. What kind of a blogger, gay dad, and Rainbow Families board member would I be if I didn't?

It was when Pelosi was making her remarks that the my question started forming in my mind because, of the three broad topics she introduced to cover a wide range of initiatives, one of them was strengthening families. Under that heading, she talked about education and healthcare as two means of strengthening families. You can probably guess where I was headed. Not for nothing have I spent the last few years blogging about the myriad ways our families get left out of the very concept of families and thus get none of the protections other families are afforded. We're not even eligible for most off them.

Childcare. Family leave. Health insurance. Even something simple simple as joining a freakin' gym isn't so simple when you have to make the case that you qualify as a family, when various and sundry laws say you actually don't. For example, I just started working as an independent consultant. I'm buying my own health insurance as a result (not cheat, by the way, but I'll talk about health care later). If I were legally married to my husband, I'd have the option of being carried on his insurance. But right now that's not possible. That's just one of many issues where LGBT families get the short end of the stick.

So I raised my hand, and when the microphone came to me, I managed to get something close to this out:

As a working father of a four-year-old, with another on the way [Ed. Note: At this point the Speaker gave me a big smile and said “Congratulations!”], and as a gay dad I'd like to hear more about strengthening families. How do we do it in a way that strengthens all families, and that recognizes the reality of diverse families; families where both parents work, families where parents aren't married to each other, families where the parents can't marry each other, single parents, etc.?

I'm not sure if the way I opened my question disarmed her, but I'd swear the Speaker blinked and even stammered for a minute, like she wasn't expecting that one. (Even though my question came close on the heels of one about “Don't Ask, Don't Tell,” which the speaker favored getting rid of.) But it was only a minute. She quickly righted herself and gave an answer that basically, and I'm paraphrasing here until the transcript is up, that boils down to this: we should already be there, and we can get there by supporting the current agenda. Put another way, we can get to a more progressive place where we will strengthen all families, but not yet

That's about what I expected. It's a pragmatic answer. The way to get there is to strengthen our position in ways that are possible now. Which implies that what we're asking for isn't possible now.

Well, I've never been accused of being pragmatic. And I didn't hear anything in the Speaker's answer that offers a solution for the issues our families are facing now. I didn't expect to, but I brought up the question because it occurs to me more and more often that the question needs to be brought up more and more often, every time there's a discussion on an issue that's relevant to our families. And just about every issue is relevant to our families. From economics to health care, there's not one that doesn't touch us and few where we don't get shafted. Because the things our governments does to strengthen families are the very things denied our families even as we subsidize them.

The problem is that we're not even considered families when it comes to policy and social programs. We're labeled as “nonfamilies.”

And if you're not family, not next of kin, you don't count for much and you don't have many rights at a time like this, when you?ve lost a member of your “non-family.” Maybe it's just a matter of not knowing what to call families who don?t fit the traditional mold. The QueerlyKos round-up also mentioned the brouhaha Condoleeza Rice called when she acknowledged AIDS czar Jeff Dybul's partner and “mother-in-law” at his swearing in. Technically Dybul's partner's mother can't be his mother-in-law, because Dybul and his partner can't have a legally recognized relationship that would make them anything-in-law but two separate people sharing a roof, etc.

In other words, a “nonfamily.” In the legal sense, at least, though heterosexual “nonfamilies” pretty much always have the option to marry receive the benefits and protections afforded based on marital status. In other words, they're only missing a piece of paper that they could easily obtain if they so choose. (And it will be argued that “gays can get married, if they just marry a member of the opposite sex”; which essentially means they have to significantly alter the make-up of their families. Something heterosexuals don't have to do.)

But that brings up the question of what exactly makes a family? Is it legally little more than a marriage certificate? What the article doesn't mention is what roles the couples labeled ?nonfamily? play in one another's lives. It's likely they do the same things that married couples do, from supporting one another financially to taking care of each other through illness, even raising children together and caring for one another in old age; all things that could be included in a conservative case for same-sex marriage.

…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?

Pelosi's answer had two basic points: (1) that a rising tide of progressive policy victories would raise all boats, including those of us in the “nonfamily units” boat, and (2)  that we have to work on convincing more people that our boats should be raised. Can we be sure of that? I mean, at present we have to face the fact that our families' boats aren't even in the same body of water. To extend the metaphor, we're more or less shunted off into a separate lock, where we sit and watch the water level rise and lift other boats, while it basically stays the same where we are.

And the half-measures we've gotten thus far are the equivalent of raising the water level in the lock one teaspoon at a time. That's why it's hard to cheer civil unions that don't leave us much better off than we were before. In fact, they just create more battles for us to fight.

Andrew Koppelman, a law professor at Northwestern University and author of the book ?Same Sex, Different States: When Same-Sex Marriages Cross State Lines,? cited two pressing issues as states wrestle with the evolving definitions of couples: “tangible benefits” and “symbolic approval.”

…If you read the New Jersey statute, it gives couples all the same rights and responsibilities and benefits? as heterosexual couples, Mr. Koppelman said. The objection that gay couples have is that civil unions are ?different, and by implication, inferior to heterosexual unions.?

Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, a statewide gay-rights organization, said that to date, 193 of the 1,359 couples who have registered for civil unions in New Jersey have reported to him that their companies are not recognizing their unions, though none have yet filed suit to challenge the law. “Companies are offering a gazillion excuses,” Mr. Goldstein said. “The law says civil union partners should be treated as spouses,” he said. “It doesn?t say they are spouses.”

Some companies, particularly those that are self-insured — like 51 percent of New Jersey businesses — contend that federal law creates obstacles to providing equal benefits. Some cite the federal Defense of Marriage Act, while many others, including United Parcel Service, refer to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. The act, known as “Erisa,” pre-empts state laws and allows self-insured employers to choose how to define “spouse.”

Tell me again how the answer is a state-by-state patchwork solution. I think that unless and until there's a federal solution we're going to continue seeing more of our families working without a net, and inevitably hitting the ground. Hard.

I don't know what a federal solution looks like. Maybe it looks like looks like a challenge to DOMA. Maybe it looks like chipping away at it one issue at a time. Maybe it looks like establishing some kind of equal legal status at the federal level (since states and private companies often used the lack of federal legislation as an excuse not to do the right thing).

I do know that we have to keep talking about the reality of our families and asking pointed questions. Even if it makes some people — including some pretty nice people who are on our side — nervous.

After all, they're not — as many of us are — living with the possibility that if the rug should get pulled out from under our families, the support that would be there for any other family won't be — can't be — there for ours.

From where I sit, some people could stand to be a little more nervous.

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