Sunday, December 27, 2009

Opposite-sex partners in the Foreign Service Want Benefits Too

This should come as no surprise to anyone. But here is the one thing unwed heterosexual couples seem to dismiss. They CAN get married. And as soon as they do, they get all the rights afforded same-sex couples and then some (like, oh, I don't know, health insurance? Pension inheritance?). Same-sex couples, even when they are legally married don't get any of those rights. Some of them have argued that the Department is trying to "force" them to get married. I wish the Department would "force" me to get married...oh wait. I AM MARRIED. Legally married. And I still had to fill out an affidavit to get the partner benefits in the Department because my marriage doesn't count.

So pardon me if I lack sympathy.

Oh, and from what I have heard, it is actually conservatives who are pushing this. Our "natural allies" are the unwitting tools of the religious right, who know that allowing benefits to opposite sex partners will not only make all of the benefits run afoul of DOMA, but will make the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act (DPBO) prohibitively expensive. So we won't be able to receive ANY of the benefits that they could get by a quick trip to Vegas. But they won't lose the ability to get married.

Benefits for gays? Us too, say the unwed
Opposite-sex partners in the Foreign Service say they should be treated the same.
By Paul Richter
LA Times

Reporting from Washington - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton won praise in June after pushing to extend many federal benefits traditionally provided to diplomats' spouses to gay and lesbian partners.

Since then, unmarried heterosexual couples have been lining up to ask for benefits too. They have approached the State Department's personnel office and the diplomats' union, arguing that they are entitled to equal treatment. At least one couple has threatened to challenge the rules in court as discriminatory.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which is responsible for policy on federal workers, is weighing such an extension of benefits, U.S. officials say -- to the consternation of conservatives.

"They should have seen this coming," said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who had opposed extending benefits to gays. "It's a Pandora's box."

The family benefits, although a small part of diplomats' overall benefit package, are important to Foreign Service officers. Benefits include paid travel for the partner to and from overseas posts; visas and diplomatic passports; emergency medical treatment; shipment of household possessions; emergency evacuation in times of danger; and education benefits for minor children. Health insurance is not included for gay partners, although spouses are covered.

Foreign Service officers contend such help is only fair, especially given the conditions they face in remote and often uncomfortable posts.

Conservatives who oppose easing the rules cite the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Passed in 1996 and signed by President Clinton, it defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and says that no state shall be required to recognize a gay marriage performed in another state.

"A good argument can be made that even these relatively limited steps violate at least the spirit of the Defense of Marriage Act," said Peter Sprigg, a fellow at the Family Research Council, which advocates for socially conservative causes.

He said the pressure from unmarried heterosexual couples "illustrates one of our concerns -- that once you open the door to anyone other than married couples, you're beginning a process of the deconstruction of marriage."

Michelle Schohn, spokeswoman for the advocacy group Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, said her group was cautioned during the closing days of the George W. Bush administration about the consequences of demanding family benefits for same-sex partners.

"If you included opposite-sex domestic partners, you could potentially be running afoul of [the Defense of Marriage Act] by creating this 'marriage light' category," she said.

Nationally, most employers -- including almost all public employers -- that extend benefits to same-sex partners also offer them to unmarried, opposite-sex partners, said Ilse de Veer, a principal in the international consulting group Mercer.

Those that offer benefits to same-sex partners but not to opposite-sex mates typically cite heterosexual couples' option of marriage, de Veer said.

Unwed heterosexual couples in the United States comprise about 10% of opposite-sex couples living together, census data show.

Schohn said her group supported extending benefits to unmarried heterosexual couples. "They're our natural allies," she said.

The American Foreign Service Assn., the diplomats' union, has not yet taken a position, said spokesman Tom Switzer, but it "has heard from a number of members who believe that the same benefits should be extended to opposite-sex, unmarried partners as well."

A senior State Department official said any benefit extension was up to the White House.

"We're prepared to take that step if that's what the White House wants to do," the official said.

In June, Obama signed a presidential memorandum extending family benefits to same-sex partners -- a concept opposed by Bush's administration.

The issue gained visibility in 2007 when the former U.S. ambassador to Romania, Michael Guest, quit the Foreign Service in protest over the issue.

Supporters of extending benefits to unmarried heterosexuals include such key Congress members as House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village) and the committee's top Republican, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.

Obama's June memorandum omitted health insurance and pension benefits for same-sex partners. Federal officials estimate that including the broader benefits would have cost $56 million in 2010, several times the price of the narrower benefits.

Some legal experts say including the broader benefits could violate the Defense of Marriage Act -- a law that Obama has said should be repealed.


Abbie said...

You're absolutely right. The article mentions a possible lawsuit, but I can't see how they have a claim. If they're going to sue on equal protection grounds, they won't stand a chance for the reason that you said--they CAN get married if they want. I am curious whether the affidavit you mention requires you to state that you would get married if you had the legal right to. Every domestic partnership application/affidavit I've seen requires a statement to that effect. If that's the case then there is no way these couples could win a lawsuit on Equal Protection grounds because they are not "similarly situated" as same-sex couples given the benefits; they can't claim that they would be entitled to the benefits because they can in fact get married, but they have chosen not to.

On the other hand. I think that if this is a tactic by the right to battle same-sex benefits it will backfire. Lawsuits like this only show how complicated it makes it to create special classes of lesser rights for gay people instead of granting full marriage equality.

Digger said... doesn't say we would get married if we had the legal right to, though perhaps it should. I do know that GLIFAA, in negotiations to get this passed, said we would support the Department requiring us to be legally married or in a legal domestic partnership in order to get the benefits (since we can declare any state we choose our legal residence). They opted for the affidavit instead. My wife and I did both.

I sincerely hope you are right about the lawsuits.

Anonymous said...

Saying that your employer "forces" you to get married if you want your opposite-sex partner to have health insurance is like saying your employer "forces" you to take the job if you yourself want health insurance. It's true, in a sense, but why is that relevant?

Health insurance is a very costly benefit, and I think it's understandable that the taxpayer would need to limit who can have it. If you're going to grant health insurance to people who can marry but choose not to do so, then by the same logic we could also grant health insurance to people who are offered a job but choose not to take it.

You are exactly right when you say that if you expand the program like this the cost will soar. The religious right knows this will kill the program, and that's why they are pushing this so hard. I only wish our straight allies would realize: this is the closest we can get to full equality right now, so please don't take us backwards.

My partner and I are still not welcome to live in the United States because only married couples qualify for immigration benefits. Other partners are left with no health insurance at all. We need to move forward before we start throwing away the measly gains we've already made.