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Same-Sex Domestic Partnership Benefits Represent a Limited Gain


Cynthia Peters

Since

when did we imagine that the country’s top automakers, Disney Corporation,

AT&T, Nike, and the Gap had the interests of gays and lesbians in mind?

Since

they implemented domestic partnership benefits for their gay and lesbian

employees. At least that is what most national gay and lesbian rights

organizations would have us believe.

In

June 2000, when Ford, General Motors and Chrysler announced that they will offer

medical, dental, prescription and other benefits starting on August 1, national

gay and lesbian rights organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC)

hailed the new policy as an important signal to other companies. “The move

could have an impact far beyond the automakers,” said Kim I. Mills, HRC’s

education director. “This industry basically defines a large portion of how

America identifies itself. Having these ‘old economy’ powerhouses saying

that these benefits are the right thing to do from a business perspective will

make other companies sit up and take notice.”

When

progressive organizations find themselves pushing businesses to do the “right

thing from a business perspective” as opposed to just simply doing the right

thing, then we’ve given away the pie, and in the process gained some crumbs.

In

this case, the crumbs are not insignificant. Thanks to considerable organizing

from gay and lesbian groups, Something like 4000 companies and many state and

city governments in the U.S. offer domestic partner benefits to employees.

Domestic partners have to show that they share financial responsibilities

(co-own a home, co-sign a lease, and/or have joint checking accounts) and have

lived together for some set amount of time. In return, they get many of the same

benefits that heterosexual married couples receive. (In many cases, opposite sex

domestic partners are not eligible for benefits because tradition argues that if

they were seriously committed to each other they’d be married.)

While

recognition of same-sex domestic partnership is a progressive gain, it raises

important challenges for people who care about these issues. Specifically, it

should make us step back and think about the strategies we employ – the

short-term gains we wring out of corporations and government versus the future

we actually envision. How might we use the domestic partnership debate to

advance our work on both fronts?

1.

The scramble to include domestic partners in benefit packages widens the circle

of those who are considered deserving of the safety net that benefits provide,

but it doesn’t challenge the idea that the circle exists in the first place.

Many – the “undeserving” – are shut out from protections. Of the

different routes gay and lesbian organizations could take toward getting their

constituency covered, they’ve chosen one that will affect only employees of

large corporations or state and city employees. Poor, unemployed, and

non-cohabitating gays and lesbians are still unprotected. Why don’t gay and

lesbian organizations put fighting for universal health care top on their list?

Why not join forces with progressive organizations and lobby for national health

care? Why not ensure that everyone has health coverage wherever they work and

even if they don’t?

2.

The idea that monogamy, co-habitating, and sharing a check book are behaviors

somehow worthy of merit and financial protections is questionable at best.

Should corporations or governments be arbiters of how families construct

themselves by rewarding some and not others? What if you don’t live with your

long-time lover? Or have several long-time lovers? Or none at all? What if you

are straight but don’t believe in marriage? What if you’re transgender, and

therefore not easily categorizable as having a “same”-sex or “opposite”

sex partner? In the current framework, you’d slip between the cracks –

unable to get married and unable to qualify for same-sex domestic partnership

benefits. What if you have a long-term relationship with a group of platonic

friends? You share check-books and mortgages but not beds. Or maybe you share

beds but not check-books. The point is: Who cares? By getting corporations to

extend benefits to same-sex couples who meet certain criteria we’ve agreed

that it’s okay for it to be anyone’s business. We’ve punished those that

fall outside the nuclear family model – gay or straight – and we’ve lent

support to the idea that society should reward certain kinds of families and

relationships.

3.

Although it may indeed be correct from a business perspective for corporations

to extend benefits to domestic partners (it attracts more workers, increases

worker loyalty, etc.), we should not limit ourselves to demands that fall within

this framework. After all, from a business perspective, it also makes sense to

superexploit workers whenever possible, export labor to third world countries

with fewer worker and environmental protections, and create job hierarchies that

actively disempower most workers and centralize control and decisionmaking in

the hands of a few. If gay and lesbian organizations lock themselves into the

box of favoring workplace policies that are good business practices, they’ll

be hard-pressed to take a stand on other choices companies make based on the

same logic. Thus, gay and lesbian web sites direct job-seekers to companies with

inclusive benefit packages, but appear to take no stand on the companies’

other practices. You’d never know, for example, that Nike and the Gap use

sweatshop labor. Or that Disney unabashedly promotes homophobia in the creation

of its evil effeminate characters. Or that autoworker wages represent a tiny

fraction of automaker CEO salaries.

The

gay and lesbian movement should challenge its national organizations to stop

limiting themselves to fighting for and settling for small pieces of the pie.

It’s true that in many social change struggles, fighting for crumbs can be a

useful strategy and can bring about significant gains. But we need to look for

ways to integrate our long-term vision into our short-term battles. The fight

for domestic partnership benefits represents a movement-building opportunity.

Gay and lesbian organizations could be working in coalition with other

progressives fighting for single-payer health care. They could be extending

support to national welfare rights organizations that are working for policies

that increase entitlements and are not humiliating to and blaming of poor people

– many of whom are gay and lesbian. They could be challenging the prejudicial

notions that only some are deserving. And they could dispense altogether with

supporting what is beneficial to business. (We already have plenty of

legislation and economic institututions that do that…). Instead, how about

promoting what is right from a justice perspective?

[To

connect with an lgbt organization that's got movement-building and radical

change on its agenda, contact The Ad Hoc Committee -- http://www.foranopenprocess.org/index-ie-f.html.

A press release states, they stand “with those who are no longer merely

interested in fighting for our `right' to be accepted into the mainstream

culture and institutions of this nation. We are part of a broader movement for

radical social and economic change. Instead of a seat at the table as it is

presently set, we will work with others to transform the way the table is

built, let alone who sits at it. We will explore ways to strengthen our ties

with the new wave of activism expressing itself in demonstrations addressing a

wide range of issues, from the devastating power of global financial

institutions, to police brutality, to the death penalty here at home.”]