Same-Sex Domestic Partnership Benefits Represent a Limited Gain
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.)
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?
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?
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
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.
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.”]