Domestic Partner Benefits Are (Almost) Passé

The Washington Blade reports that the State Department is considering phasing out domestic partner (DP) benefits for unmarried gay employees now that the government can recognize same-sex marriages. There have been some objections raised, but once gay couples are free to wed throughout the nation, DP benefits will have served their purpose and can be dispensed with. This has already happened at many companies in states with marriage equality.

The Blade notes that one gay State Department employee complained: “While it’s great that we can get married much more easily now, my partner and I are not looking forward to being forced into a shotgun marriage due to a policy change that takes away the benefits we were promised.”

But spousal benefits are intended for family units with a commitment to permanency, and hence marriage—two individuals who by dint of legally binding mutual obligations are treated as a collective singular. They aren’t, or shouldn’t be, freebies for shacking up. If you want the benefits of being a spouse, that requires accepting the legal responsibilities of marriage. And that, in fact, was a theme we’ve sounded here at IGF CultureWatch over the decades. Ten years ago I wrote With Marriage an Option, Who Needs DP Benefits?, as Massachusetts was about to become the first state to recognize same-sex marriages (and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, one of the state’s largest employers, moved to drop DP benefits for state residents).

That 2004 post noted another post, from 10 years earlier, in which I took a critical view of activists demanding that private employers provide DP benefits to both gay and straight couples alike:

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).

That day, thankfully, will soon be upon us.

27 Comments for “Domestic Partner Benefits Are (Almost) Passé”

  1. posted by Jorge on

    Eh. If you’re a cultural lefty same-sex, why not make alliance with a cultural lefty hetero? The State Department wanted to be progressive in its time, I believe. But what is the purpose of domestic partnerships now? Only the same purpose it has for straight people. That’s not zero.

  2. posted by Houndentenor on

    I tend to agree with this. If you want the benefits of being married, then you have to assume the responsibilities as well. That said, I do see the point that this binary of single/married ignores that it’s not 1955 and most people don’t go from living with their parents to being married. Living together is common and some benefits for couples that cohabitate but aren’t married makes sense. It’s not an issue that I’ve thought that much about so I’m opening to hearing arguments either way. It’s something we should consider as DP benefits were often open to straight people as well. Perhaps we should hear from the people who want one or the other before taking a strong position.

  3. posted by Tom Scharbach on

    The entire point of “equal means equal” is “equal, no more, no less”.

    Domestic partnership benefits, for the most part, were implemented as a way to fill a stopgap, to provide gay and lesbian couples who would otherwise be married but could not get married with benefits approximating the benefits that were available to married straight couples. When full marriage equality is a fact on the ground, then the stopgap is no longer needed.

    It seems to me, though, that there are two paths to “equal means equal” in this respect.

    The first is to eliminate government/company/institution domestic partnership programs for unmarried gay/lesbian couples, treating them identically with straight couples. If that path is followed, marriage becomes the bright line — if married, benefits, if not, no benefits.

    The second is to expand government/company/institution domestic partnership programs to include all unmarried couples, both straight and gay/lesbian. If that path is followed, marriage is not a bright line — benefits are available to both married and unmarried couples.

    The most important thing is that both routes meet the “equal means equal” test.

    Thinking about the two paths, it does seem to me that Houndentenor’s observation (“I do see the point that this binary of single/married ignores that it’s not 1955 and most people don’t go from living with their parents to being married. Living together is common and some benefits for couples that cohabitate but aren’t married makes sense.“) is something we should take into careful consideration when thinking about the two paths.

    Wisconsin government employees (state, county, university) can register for limited domestic partner benefits under Wisconsin Act 28. The law applies to both straight and gay/lesbian couples.

    I’m fine with that, just as I’m fine with the domestic partnership benefits programs of what seems to be an increasing number of companies that provide domestic partner benefits to unmarried couples regardless of orientation.

    Given the fact that a lot of unmarried straight couples are living together in long-term relationships, providing a domestic partnership benefit path to both straight and gay/lesbian unmarried couples is likely to become more common over time.

  4. posted by Tom Jefferson III on

    In other nations that had something like domestic partnerships, but have since gone onto recognize marriage….they have (apparently) automatically updated domestic partnerships into civil marriages…or at least streamlined the process.

    I would suggest that the State Department stop issuing new domestic partnership benefits (where their is federal recognition of same-sex marriage) and then maybe consider allowing current DP holders to be grandfathered in or something like that (if compromise is a noble goal in Wash DC)

  5. posted by Tom Scharbach on

    [S]pousal benefits are intended for family units with a commitment to permanency, and hence marriage. They aren’t, or shouldn’t be, freebies for shacking up. If you want the benefits of being a spouse, that requires accepting the legal commitments of marriage. And that, in fact, was a theme we’ve sounded here at IGF CultureWatch over the decades.

    I’m old enough to remember a time when our cultural norm was “If you want to live together, get married, and if you have children, stay married.” I grew up with that standard, I believe in that standard, and I encouraged my children to marry rather than “live together” (prompting the snark among them to send me a note “So glad you aren’t living in sin anymore …” when Michael and I married). Snarky kids aside, I think that trying to strengthen “marriage as gold standard” is an effort worth making, now and in the future, every bit as much as I have in the past.

    But I think that horse has left the barn, pretty much. We no longer live in the world I grew up in, or even in the world of a couple of decades ago. Marriage rates have continued to fall since we were writing about “marriage as gold standard” a decade ago, although the rate of living together outside of marriage seems to have leveled off somewhat. A lot of men and women, both straight and gay/lesbian, are living together outside the bonds of marriage and are raising children. It seems to me that is a factor that we need to take into consideration, regardless of how we feel about “marriage as gold standard”.

    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.

    I don’t know about that, Stephen. The primary thrust was for benefits for gay/lesbian couples, who could not marry. Linking those benefits with benefits for “unwed heteros” was an asterick, as I recall, and was primarily a defensive tactic, an attempt to weaken the social conservative “NO SPECIAL RIGHTS FOR HOMOSEXUALS” meme. To the extent that gays and lesbians linked the two issues, it had both tactical advantages and disadvantages, but it wasn’t much of a factor, as I recall.

    I remember us arguing back and forth about domestic partnership and civil unions back in 2004-2005, in another context. You argued (as did most in the gay/lesbian community) that gays and lesbians should push for domestic partnership and civil union recognition by state governments as a stepping-stone on the path to marriage equality, both to allow the country time and space to get used to gay/lesbian relationships and to provide protections to gay/lesbian couples until we could achieve marriage equality. I argued that we should ignore domestic partnership and civil union recognition, and push hard, and push exclusively, for marriage equality.

    Looking back, I still don’t know which of us was right about that question, but it does seem to me that the push for civil unions and domestic partnerships was a factor in weakening the case for “marriage as gold standard”. I think that Rausch was right when he observed that “marriage lite” weakened “marriage as gold standard”.

  6. posted by Tom Jefferson III on

    In the original Star Trek series, their was this episode about Vulcan marriage policy. Basically, Spock had to return to his home world (during a painful period) and prove that he was worthy to marry (through a battle sequence).

    Sometimes I do wonder, if that might not be an idea to try out in the real world. ;0)

  7. posted by Tom Scharbach on

    A legal note: Federal Judge Saves 300 Marriages from Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.

  8. posted by Digger Diplomat on

    I am lesbian Foreign Service Officer and have written a response to GLIFAA’s proposal that we keep SSDP benefits here:

  9. posted by Digger Diplomat on

    Please make that “am A lesbian FSO”….

  10. posted by Thom on

    I am gay Foreign Service Officer and the Department should absolutely do away with the SSDP program. I was incredibly grateful when it was initiated but post-Windsor, it serves no purpose other than allowing some gays the opportunity to game the system and receive undeserved benefits for their boyfriends/girlfriends – benefits our straight colleagues do not get. It’s simple, if you want the perks, put some skin in the game, walk down the aisle and say “I do”. If you’re not ready or uncomfortable with that, fine. Just don’t expect Joe Taxpayer to pick up the tab to fly your squeeze all over the world, pay for their R&Rs, issue them a diplomatic passport and give them hiring preference at post when you don’t know yet if they’re “the one”. The military doesn’t give SSDP benefits and neither should the State Dept. Oh, and the idea of allowing straights to have DPs would bankrupt the Department. Imagine getting a ton of benefits for signing an affidavit saying “he/she is the one” but that has no legal consequence in the real world – oh, and you can dissolve that affidavit with a click of your mouse two weeks later and sign a new one with someone else without any cost or hassle. Everyone would do it, why wouldn’t they? The SSDP program served a purpose and helped give some parity to gay and lesbian FSOs, however, its time has passed and it needs to go.

    • posted by Mike in Houston on

      Actually, the arguments that you present are exactly the same ones used against domestic partner benefits by the anti-LGBT equality crowd from the beginning — and are not in any way borne out by more that 30 years of experience in the private sector.

    • posted by Houndentenor on

      If gay people can have either domestic partnerships or marriage while straights can only have marriage, wouldn’t that be discrimination? Either the DP status should go away (as soon as marriage is legal nationwide, of course) or DPs should be open to straight as well as gay couples. It makes no difference to me either way but the same options should be available to all couples.

      • posted by Mike in Houston on

        I was responding more to the arguments about fraud and that it would bankrupt the State Department.

        First, the process for signing up is not just a click of the mouse — and there are requirements for DPB’s that straight married couples don’t have to follow (same residence, financial entanglement, etc.)…

        The cost argument is also entertaining… the largest costs for employers in the benefits areas are healthcare. A heart attack & subsequent care cost more over a lifetime than HIV/AIDS… so does pregnancy & post-birth care of that dependent. Adding same and opposite-sex domestic partners to the mix has never made for more than a 5% swing in overall costs…

        • posted by Thom on

          The “click of the mouse” comment referred to dissolving an SSDP with the State Dept, which is exactly all it takes. You contact your HR tech via an online form and alert them to the fact your relationship is over – the end. The other person doesn’t even have to sign anything. As for registering a SSDP, all that’s necessary is signing a form – no one checks to see if you in fact own property together, live together, are financially interdependent, etc. You are on your honor. My problem is that now that marriage is available in most of the country and is federally recognized, there is no reason to keep this program. As I’ve said, if you’re not ready to commit, don’t expect benefits. Your boyfriend can still go to post, they just have to pay their own way like straight couples not ready to marry have to. I want equal rights, not special ones. Currently, gays in the FS have special rights. The program was meant as a stopgap measure until marriage was federally recognized – it’s time to dissolve the program.

  11. posted by Mike in Houston on

    Time and the pace of progress over the last 25 years has tended to diminish how hard-fought many of these gains were.

    (It’s also ironic that certain parties that espouse incrementalism with regards to civil rights ignore the result: a patchwork that makes your equality dependent on geography.)

    When I started work at Chevron, inclusion of sexual orientation in the company non-discrimination policies was a couple years away… and that change (the first in the oil & gas industry) was not particularly well received by various folks.

    When we started the discussion about DP benefits, it would take a long five years to get management on board with providing them…

    I well remember having to counter arguments like:

    Why is the company endorsing the gay lifestyle?

    How are we going to ensure that fraud doesn’t happen — gays will just sign people up to get insurance for their friends with AIDS?

    Won’t all these gays (since they all have AIDS) push insurance rates up for straight employees?

    Initially, the proposal was only for lesbian & gay employees but ultimately straight domestic partners were included simply because — as one HR person put it — the company needed to be meeting employees (and their families) where they are, not where they were “supposed” to be.

    Tellingly, the “light bulb” moment for some of our executives came from a meeting where a lesbian from Lafayette stood up and said that all she really wanted was to be able to get her kids braces — just like every other family in the office. To that point, I’m not sure there was a realization that gay people existed outside of California or SF for our execs.

    And when the company did announce the benefits change, there was even an effort to create a stockholder revolt… thankfully, that didn’t get that far.

    The landscape has certainly changed since then and the internal “battles” have mostly been around esoteric company procedures (to get DP benefits, even if you were legally married required a notarized affidavit; updating HR systems to account for domestic partners, dependents and now legally married; dealing with married in this state and not in that — this country or and not that; FMLA; COBRA; etc.)

    And on the theme that behaviors change attitudes I’ve written about… once things became established policy (and were reinforced), the attitudes of most employees (and contractors) is 180 from where it once was… and leadership in LGBT equality is considered a corporate asset and not a distraction.

    • posted by Houndentenor on

      A surprising (to me, at least) number of corporations are lining up with amicus briefs when marriage goes to SCOTUS (whenever that might be). It must be a nightmare dealing with people who are married for federal but not state purposes. Or who move across a state line and suddenly are married or not in the new state.

      But more than anything, I think this entire conversation is premature. Until we have nationwide marriage equality there are still gay couples who need those DP benefits in their cities because the federal benefits don’t cover everything.

  12. posted by Doug on

    Until marriage is totally separated from it’s religious association, I favor keeping domestic partnerships.

    • posted by Houndentenor on

      Marriage only has a religious association for those who wish it to have one. No couple is required to have a religious ceremony nor were they ever required to.

      • posted by Doug on

        I meant that until there is only civil marriage and religious institutions are no longer allowed to legally perform marriages.

    • posted by JohnInCA on

      I think “domestic partnerships” and “civil unions” and such would need more recognition for that to be terribly persuassive to me. That is to say… I live in California, and did before the Prop 8 case got to the Supreme Court. In that time I could have gotten into a “Domestic Partnership” with my now-husband.

      I didn’t. Because it would have *really* complicated things, especially as I’m a federal employee. Respected at the state level, but not the federal, y’know? And that problem, that Domestic Partnerships (and the like) aren’t always transferable (goes away and reappears as you cross state lines), isn’t consistent (the rights and responsibilities vary with geography), isn’t federally recognized (that whole slew of 1000+ federal marriage rights? DDs give none of ’em) and so-on…

      So no. With DDs as they currently exist, I’m not terribly persuaded.

    • posted by James in Chicago on

      Where the law pertaining to marriage in this country is concerned, religion might as well not exist. Our thinking about marriage should not be informed by right-wing Christian lies and propaganda. All societies have had some form of marriage and more frequently than not unrelated to any religious beliefs. It’s not an essentially religious, let alone specifically Christian, institution. The anti-gay bigots deny this fact, because they recognize that our right to marry, in a society where marriage is now fundamentally based on romantic love, validates us as gay people. The irony in their position is that the early Christian leadership, believing that the end of history was imminent, were hostile to all sexual activity on the part of Christians and consequently took a very dim view of marriage, while the pagan Romans freely married. Christians were against marriage, before they were for it, and now some of them in their anti-gay zealotry claim to have invented it!

  13. posted by JohnInCA on

    Meh, I can see the argument for the State Department (and similar institutions) going with a “no new applicants” policy, but the “shotgun wedding” angle has a ring to it. It’s not really fair to demand that people jump through new hoops to keep what they already got. But not accepting new applicants? Yeah, that seems fair.

    But really, the entire thing seems a bit premature. As the saying goes, the Fat Lady hasn’t sung yet.

  14. posted by Doug on

    What is the harm in leaving DP on the book for those that find some benefit from it? Their may indeed be some benefit, depending on the state, to seniors who want some sort of sanctioned relationship and not mess with their social security or some other issue. Just because DP went on the books to benefit gay and lesbian folks does not mean that others may find a benefit to using it that may not have been the original intent.

    Who are we to be sanctimonious and do away with some legislation that may be of benefit, intended or otherwise, to other folks. This country is gamed, rigged and stacked in favor of some group over another group.

  15. posted by Tom Scharbach on

    What is the harm in leaving DP on the book for those that find some benefit from it? Their may indeed be some benefit, depending on the state, to seniors who want some sort of sanctioned relationship and not mess with their social security or some other issue.

    In cases where governments/businesses/institutions have created domestic partnership benefits programs that are currently applicable to both straight and gay/lesbian couples (e.g. the Wisconsin state employee program I referred to earlier) there is no reason to eliminate the programs after marriage equality becomes a fact on the ground.

    The programs may weaken “marriage as gold standard”, but I think we can fairly assume that the programs were put in place for good reasons, and that the reasons the programs were put in place have not been changed by marriage equality.

    With respect to domestic partnership programs that benefit gay/lesbian unmarried couples but do not include straight unmarried couples, continuation of the programs will, at some point once marriage equality is a fact nationwide, violate “equal means equal” by providing benefits to one class (unmarried gay/lesbian couples) but not to another class (unmarried straight couples) similarly situated.

    In my view, if and when marriage equality is a fact on the ground nationally, the programs open only to unmarried gay/lesbian couples should either be (1) eliminated (with a transitional period to allow couples enrolled in those programs to married if they wish to do so) or (2) expanded to include unmarried straight couples.

    … freebies for shacking up …

    In this and other similar characterizations lurking around this thread, am I the only one that senses moral approbation as a rationale for policy? I’m not sure that homocons should get their noses too far in the air on that score, given that sodomy laws would still be in place today if moral approbation were a permitted constitutional grounds for making law and policy.

    • posted by JohnInCA on

      Re: “moral approbation as a rationale for policy”

      To be unfair, I’ve always gotten the feeling that conservative LGB’s (I’m not saying there are no conservative Ts, but I’ve never heard of one) kind feel that way about the LGBT community in general, turning up their nose while saying “well, I may be gay, but at least I’m not like *those* gays”. This is an unusual context for that condescension to rear it’s head, most often you see it around anything related to pride parades, but yeah, I’m hearing it here too.

      Which is kinda funny as they sound *just* like the people saying “well, now two straight guys can marry for the benefits!”, just flat-out ignoring that it’s not an idle commitment in most cases and getting the benefits for a non-serious relationship *is* a serious effort.

    • posted by Thom on

      It’s not moral approbation on my part, it’s simply wanting everyone to be treated equally. I know gays in the FS who are receiving benefits that are either not ready to get married or have no interest in it. I don’t think that’s fair to my straight counterparts who might be in a similar situation, nor is it fair to me. Marriage is a big deal and if you’re not ready to take that risk and make the commitment, you shouldn’t receive all the benefits and privileges associated with it. If that makes me a disapproving homocon then so be it.

  16. posted by Tom Scharbach on

    A short legal note about a major development: The Supreme Court just granted cert in all four 6th Circuit cases:

    Tanco v. Haslam (Tennessee) — Questions: (1) Whether a state violates the Due Process or Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by depriving same-sex couples of the fundamental right to marry, including recognition of their lawful, out-of-state marriages; (2) whether a state impermissibly infringes upon same-sex couples’ fundamental right to interstate travel by refusing to recognize their lawful out-of-state marriages; and (3) whether this Court’s summary dismissal in Baker v. Nelson is binding precedent as to petitioners’ constitutional claims.

    Obergefell v. Hodges (Ohio) — Questions: (1) Whether Ohio’s constitutional and statutory bans on recognition of marriages of same-sex couples validly entered in other jurisdictions violate the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; and (2) whether Ohio’s refusal to recognize a judgment of adoption of an Ohio-born child issued to a same-sex couple by the courts of a sister state violates the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

    Bourke v. Beshear (Kentucky) — Questions: (1) Whether a state violates the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment by prohibiting gay men and lesbians from marrying an individual of the same sex; and (2) whether a state violates the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment by refusing to recognize legal marriages between individuals of the same sex performed in other jurisdictions.

    Deboer v. Snyder (Michigan) — Question: Whether a state violates the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by denying same-sex couples the right to marry.

    The Court consolidated the four cases and limited oral argument to two questions: (1) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex? (2) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state? The Court allotted 90 minutes for argument on the first question, and 60 minutes for argument on the second question.

    The Court also set a compressed briefing schedule, as follows: February 27 (Petitioner’s Merit Brief), March 27 (Respondents’ Merit Brief), and April 17 (Reply Briefs). The order did not set the date for oral arguments, but Supreme Court Rule 25 requires that the last brief be submitted no later than 7 days prior to oral arguments, so the most likely dates are April 27, 28 or 29.

    So it looks like we will have a national decision by the end of June, or early July at the latest.

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