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Love in the Time of Inequality

2011 February 14

It’s Valentine’s Day.  A day when—through the purchase of flowers, stuffed animals, chocolates, and ugly jewelry—we celebrate love.  But for millions of people across this country, a day dedicated to ostentatious displays of affection and love only reminds us that this country does not treat us, or our relationships, as equal.  So while, yes, I’m free to buy ugly jewelry from Kay Jewelers, I’ve never seen a gay couple in one of their TV commercials (“Every kiss begins with Kay, even if you’re gay…”), and if I were to buy a wedding ring, I’d have to cross state lines to put it on another woman’s finger.

I recently caught up with a family friend named Michele.  She and her partner have been together for 25 years, and are raising two adopted children.  Because they live in New Jersey, where on January 7, 2010, the Senate defeated a bill that would have permitted same-sex marriage, they instead have a domestic partnership.  They have updated their wills, advanced directives, durable powers of attorney, and done the best they could to make sure their family is protected should anything happen to one of them.  But because they are not legally married, they are still victims of tremendous inequalities.

A few years ago, their young son was diagnosed with leukemia.  Though he is covered by Michele’s health insurance, because she and her partner are not married, she eventually had to pay taxes on “imputed income,” the amount that her employer paid into her son’s care.  This is a stark example of the inequalities between domestic partnerships, civil unions, and marriages.  Even if these two were legally married in New Jersey (or Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Washington DC, or Iowa) they would still have to file separate federal taxes.

The Human Rights Campaign explains:

Non-dependent same-sex partners and spouses (and their dependents) are treated differently under federal and most states’ tax laws.  Imputed income is the estimated value of the employer’s financial contribution towards health insurance coverage for non-dependent same-sex partners must be reported as taxable wages earned…  This tax penalty, depending on the individual and the estimated value of the health benefit, can be in the thousands of dollars per year and can result in the individual paying upwards of 50% more in federal taxes. As of 2007, employees with partner benefits pay on average $1,069 per year more in taxes than would an employee with the same coverage for a different-sex spouse.

Marriage is not a state issue; it’s a federal one.  In the next six months, I’ll be relocating to the west coast, where no state issues marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  Yet here I sit, in Baltimore, where right now, the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act is working its way through the State Senate and the House of Delegates.   The bill has 59 co-sponsors in the House, and Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley has agreed to sign it if it reaches his desk.  This could be the year for Maryland, and in a heart-breakingly beautiful op-ed piece from The Baltimore Sun, local public radio host Dan Rodricks shared the story of Mark Thomas Ketterson, who married a retired Marine named John Fliszar in Iowa two years ago.  When Mr. Fliszar died, his husband requested that his cremated remains be interred at the Naval Academy’s columbarium in Annapolis.  Because Mr. Ketterson could provide a death certificate and a marriage license bearing each of their names, his request was granted.  Without a marriage license, his request could easily have been denied; indeed, it is somewhat surprising that it was honored.

This Valentine’s Day, I’ll join hundreds of marriage supporters at Equality Maryland’s Annual Lobby Day in Annapolis.  We’ll be rallying for marriage equality outside the state house and then meeting with legislators.  So this year, for many of us, Valentine’s Day isn’t about cliché gifts, romantic candlelit dinners, and heart-shaped chocolates.  It’s about fighting for civil recognition of what so many people in this country take for granted.

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