First appeared January 14, 1994, in Frontiers (Los Angeles).
A HEADLINE on the coveted front page of the New York Times blared out, "County in Texas Snubs Apple Over Unwed Partner Policies." The story, which had percolated through the gay press before it was discovered by "the paper of record" and the rest of the national media, concerned the now infamous decision by Williamson County, Texas, to deny Apple Computer a tax abatement to build an $80 million office complex just north of Austin.
The deal, with the promise of 1,500 or more high-tech, high-wage jobs, was originally nixed over Apple's policy of granting unmarried partners of its employees - whether heterosexual or homosexual - the same health benefits conferred on spouses. Following intense arm-twisting by Texas Gov. Ann Richards, the county commission changed its mind - but clearly not its heart.
According to the Times account, the county's straight-laced commissioners felt Apple's policy undermined "traditional family values" and should not receive taxpayer support. The country "was not founded on same-sex lovers and live-in lovers," one opponent proclaimed. "It goes to what kind of morals you want to set for your community," argued another.
The typical take on all this is that virulent anti-gay bigotry is on a roll. "It's remarkable that in these economically difficult times, this blatant prejudice would prevail over smart business decisions," concluded William Rubenstein, director of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. Now I wouldn't for one instant question that the good folks of Williamson County are deeply homophobic and homo-ignorant, but something else is also evident in their actions - omething that the gay movement would do well to consider if it hopes to start winning political victories outside major urban centers.
Some employers, such as Lotus Development Corp., provide benefits to gay partners but not to unmarried heterosexuals. But Apple, like most city governments that have established domestic partner benefits, grants them to unmarried straight employees as well. What's wrong with that? Nothing, say those who view marriage as a stifling, patriarchal institution that should be undermined regardless of whether children are involved. But plenty is wrong with it, in light of overwhelming evidence about the effect of family breakups that leave kids without fathers who provide financial support and act as paternal role models.
"As long as women continue to have relationships with, and continue to bear the children of men who do not marry them, men will continue to be absent fathers," William Raspberry, a black columnist, wrote last month in his syndicated column. "The breakdown of family really does... lead to a culture whose rules of behavior are established by unsocialized adolescent males."
While the situation is most familiar in terms of the underclass African-American family (two-thirds of black births are now to single women), family breakdown should not be seen as a racial issue. Scholar Charles Murray noted these facts on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal last October: At the beginning of the 1970s some 6 percent of white births were illegitimate; in 1991 the figure was 22 percent. With the current growth trend implying a 40 percent illegitimacy rate by the year 2000, the prospect for a huge white underclass is looming.
It is not only conservatives who share this view. Liberal, progay columnist Richard Cohen hailed Murray's warning, declaring a host of social pathologies - including crime, drugs, poverty and hopelessness?as "a clear consequence" of illegitimacy. "Without mature males as role models (not to mention disciplinarians)," Cohen wrote, about 1.2 million American children annually are "growing up unsocialized - prone to violence, unsuitable for employment and thus without prospect or hope." He added, "It's clear that the American taxpayer is losing patience."
Which brings us back to Apple. A corporate policy which appears to condone relationships without responsibility does threaten social stability, based on child-rearing within coherent families. Again, I don't doubt the effect of anti-gay bigotry in Williamson County, but linking benefits for gay partners who are not allowed to be married with benefits for heterosexuals who don't want to make a commitment puts the gay rights movement in the position of appearing to oppose all bedrock values -- and plays directly into the hands of the religious right, which argues that the "gay agenda" is to destroy the moral foundation of Western civilization!
Alas, an otherwise positive goal - supporting child-rearing within stable families - is now bound up with the rest of the right wing's cultural program in all its exclusionary mean-spiritedness. But instead of exposing the sophistry of lumping gay rights (which would expand the range of families) with real anti-family phenomena such as unwed teen mothers and deadbeat dads, gay activists champion partner benefits for all. When New York state's top court, in response to a suit by gay rights groups, upheld the right of gay survivors to take over rent-stabilized apartments when a lover dies, activists rushed to point out that the decision also covered unmarried men and women living together?as if that made the decision "better."
How much more constructive it would be if our movement, while pushing for full marriage rights, stopped making alliances with cultural leftists favoring benefits for unwed heteros. As David Boaz advocates in the January 1994 issue of Liberty, a libertarian journal, workers should be told "if you want the benefits of marriage, get married; but if the state won't let you get married, we'll be more progressive." Benefits, he asserts, should not be seen "as one more goodie to hand out," but "as a way of remedying an unfairness, not to mention retaining valued employees."
He's right. Domestic partnership benefits should be a stopgap measure for gays and lesbians until we achieve full marriage rights (based on legally recognized commitments). And, with legislators in Minnesota and elsewhere now introducing bills to specifically prohibit recognition of same-sex marriages (even if validated in other states), that fight is just beginning.