Last week, the United States Supreme Court decided that federal laws that apply to married people apply to same-sex couples who are married in a state where same-sex marriage is legal. As a liberal person who supports equal rights, I’m supposed to rejoice in this great victory for equality and diversity.
In a way, I am glad. Making certain federal benefits available only to people whose permanent monogamous sexual partner is of the opposite sex was unfair to people who feel sexual attraction only to their own sex and therefore could never enter into a heterosexual marriage except in a half-hearted or deceptive kind of way. If marriage is linked to government benefits, those benefits should be available to all people who choose a married relationship.
What bothers me about this court decision and nearly all the discussion of the issue in the past few years is that very few people ever seem to consider that If or to consider what it really means. This decision does not “make the benefits of marriage available to everybody,” as I’ve heard many people exclaim happily. It makes “the benefits of marriage” available to every person who
- is willing to commit to a relationship with one specific person as long as they both shall live
- is able to find a specific person with whom he/she is willing to make that commitment
- is able to get this person to agree to make this commitment
- is willing to accept losing a few rights, depending on the state in which they live, such as the right to press charges if sexually assaulted and the right to use science to prove paternity and various details of financial decision-making and property ownership
- is willing to accept being publicly perceived as the domestic partner, sexual partner, and love interest of his/her spouse
- is willing to accept that if the marriage ends, decisions about how to divide property and child custody will be made at least partly by strangers, in an expensive process.
It also makes “the benefits of marriage” available to every person who
- is willing to lie about his/her relationship with and commitment to another person in order to obtain said benefits.
In other words, it makes “the benefits of marriage” available to every person who is willing to engage in marriage. Fair enough, as far as it goes.
What bothers me about all this is that, in modern American society, marriage is understood mostly as a sexual relationship. Romantic, too, yes, but there’s a strong assumption that married people have sex with each other and are supposed to have sex only with each other, that the primary function of marriage is to draw the sexual property lines–and many Americans believe that sexual activity is morally acceptable only when married. The assumption that marriage is about sex has been very clear in the debate over same-sex marriage: It is because a gay male couple or a lesbian couple have sex differently than a male-female couple that people question whether their relationship meets the definition of marriage. For people who believe that only married sex is okay, allowing two men to marry each other is equivalent to saying gay sex is okay.
But if this is all about sex, why is it connected to these federal benefits? Social Security survivor benefits, health insurance, Earned Income Tax Credit, estate tax, retirement savings, Family and Medical Leave Act, immigration–none of these are about sex! They’re mostly about money. The only benefits even tangentially related to sex are those connected to children–and every single one of those gives adoptive parents the same rights as biological parents. Who gets taxed, how much you get taxed, how much money you get if something bad happens–why should any of those depend on whom you have sex with?!? This is a serious question. If you really think that makes sense after reading this entire article, I would like to hear from you.
The reason our laws about money are tied to marriage is that, in the era when these laws or their foundational principles were developed, women weren’t allowed to function like full adults. A husband deserved tax credit for supporting a wife, and a widow needed governmental help to survive on the money her husband left her because she wouldn’t be able to earn much. We aren’t in that era anymore. Women are economically equal under the law, many married women now earn more than their husbands, and although there is still a wage gap between men and women, it’s a lot less than it was a few decades ago.
However, it’s certainly true that there still are thousands of families in the United States in which a man earns all the money while a woman keeps house and cares for children. That man deserves credit for supporting people beyond himself. If he dies first, she’ll have trouble earning money because she’s been out of the job market for years and will likely have to start with a low-wage job, so she deserves some help–because her years of unpaid caring for people contributed to our society. That hasn’t stopped making sense for these families just because American families overall have become more diverse.
The thing is, there are many situations in which one adult might agree to pay all the living expenses of another adult, and none of these situations is necessarily connected to sex. (I’m going to use female and male pronouns just so you can follow which person is which–either person might be either gender.) She might be supporting him because
- He does household work and/or childcare that makes her career easier by reducing the demands on her time.
- He is going to school, creating art, trying to start a business, ministering to the needy, or otherwise spending his days doing something that might lead to income in the future but isn’t bringing in any money now, but that they’ve agreed is worthwhile.
- He is sick, injured, mentally or physically challenged, or elderly and isn’t able to work.
- He is willing to take a paying job, but he has been unable to get one.
- He simply does not like working for pay, and she is happy to take care of him.
Regardless of their reasons, one adult is supporting another, and I believe this choice deserves credit in our tax system because
- Caring for another person is a kind and generous thing to do, which our society should support.
- The supported person does not need welfare or other government benefits to survive. This reduces costs to society.
- The supported person is not taking a job, making that job available to another person. This is helpful, especially in a recession.
The adult who chooses to support another adult might be partly motivated by their lifelong pledge of sexual monogamy, or by their sexual relationship which allows for involvement with other people, or by their romantic love relationship which might not involve sex, or by their love for one another as family members who would never consider sexual involvement with each other, or by their friendship which involves no sexual attraction. Does it matter?
Why should two people who make a lifelong pledge of sexual monogamy have a different tax status than two people who have another type of relationship? Why should a married couple in which one spouse earns all the money have the same tax status as a married couple in which both spouses earn money and contribute equally to the family household? It just doesn’t make any sense to me. After all, taxes are about money, not about sex. You get tax credit for each of the children you support, regardless of the type of sexual relationship in which you created them or even if someone else’s sexual activity created them and you adopted them.
What would make sense is for the IRS to use the Head of Household filing status as the way for an adult taxpayer to claim credit for supporting any other adult–not just a biological or adopted close relative–who passes the support test. This would cover a spouse, an unmarried partner, a friend, whoever it is you choose to support for whatever reason. It wouldn’t make any difference whether you love them that way or you love them some other way. It wouldn’t matter if you have more than one such person, as long as you can prove your economic support of all of them. You would get the credit only in the year(s) you support the person. If you don’t support anyone other than yourself, you’d simply file your own individual tax return, regardless of whom you live with or whom you have sex with. The tax table could be half the size!
Immigration is a trickier issue. I understand why the government doesn’t want to allow every immigrant to bring in however many casual boyfriends and/or girlfriends he or she happens to have. On the other hand, the longstanding phenomenon of green card marriages makes it obvious that marriage is a means of immigration that’s easily abused. I am no expert on immigration! All I have to say about it at this point is that I’m glad it is now possible for same-sex couples to immigrate together rather than choose between being separated or having a sham marriage to someone of the other sex.
My partner Daniel and I have been a happily unmarried heterosexual couple for 19 years now. We’re comfortable with our rights under the laws and the taxes we’ve paid. But we can’t wholeheartedly celebrate the extension of special rights for married people to same-sex married people. Equality and nondiscrimination are good–but this decision only makes married couples equal to other married couples and reduces discrimination between different types of married couples. It does nothing at all to chip away at the idea that your sexual relationship ought to be registered with the government so that you can be treated differently. We oppose that idea, and we always will.