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Perspective

I do... want benefits, too

Arguments for gay marriage highlight a bias against singles.

By Alison Lobron
December 6, 2009

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A few months before Maine voters overturned a gay marriage law, a friend told me she feared layoffs at her company and the potential loss of her health insurance.

A single woman in her 30s, she said, half-jokingly, “I know so many women in the same boat. Since we live in Massachusetts, maybe we should just pretend to be lesbians and marry each other!”

She was kidding, mostly. But I remembered her words when I visited Maine the weekend before Election Day and saw gay marriage supporters waving signs that read “Protect Maine Equality.” As a proponent of gay rights, I was on their side -- albeit with a chip on my shoulder the size of Bangor. After all, a campaign aimed at eradicating one kind of inequality has highlighted another: discrimination against those who, by choice or by chance, do not organize their lives around a romantic relationship.

A common, and persuasive, argument for gay marriage goes something like this: We need marriage because if a gay person loses a job, he may not be able to get on a partner’s health plan. Or, a lesbian whose partner dies cannot collect survivor’s benefits from Social Security.

Those are formidable disparities, and ones that also affect the roughly 40 percent of Americans over 25 who are unmarried. If a single person dies without a dependant child or parent, Social Security benefits go back into the pot, not to a loved one. If I lost my job, I’d be thrown into the COBRA labyrinth while a married co-worker could simply get on his or her spouse’s plan.

Last year, I wrote an essay in this magazine on the advantage married people have of receiving lower auto insurance premiums than single people, driving records aside. But health care and life benefits can add up to quite a bit more money over time.

Anyone seriously concerned about protecting a spiritual, romantic, or religious concept of marriage should see the real threat to the institution. It isn’t gay people. It’s having marriage become the cheapest way to get a doctor to check out that weird muscle spasm in your neck.

Our country’s habit of passing out financial perks based on marital status is hardly a time-honored tradition. According to marriage historian Stephanie Coontz, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that US governments and corporations began using marital status as a way to decide who got which benefits. “The development of the welfare state here was more attached to marriage than to individual rights,” she says.

Extending the privileges of one spouse to the other might have made sense back when women were often required to leave the workforce upon marriage. But now it’s hopelessly dated. “Why should my access to health care depend on whom I’m sleeping with?” Coontz says. “It’s a good reason to argue for the state to develop other ways to extend health insurance and benefits.”

Developing alternatives won’t be simple, but separating marital status from health care would be a big first step. So would allowing unmarried employees to designate an adult of their choice to receive whatever financial benefits a married co-worker gives a spouse.

Some argue that the road to true fairness isn’t expanding marriage rights -- it’s getting the state out of the marriage business altogether, a possibility that arose when the Supreme Court of California heard arguments on Proposition 8. In this scenario, religious groups and families would solemnize marriages (as they do now) and states would instead issue “civil union” licenses, giving the same legal rights and responsibilities to all who register. A heterosexual couple would get one. So would a gay couple. So, potentially, would unmarried siblings who make a home together. Coontz says Canada has considered proposals allowing a pair of friends to obtain rights (and obligations) similar to marriage.

This sort of proposal would, unfortunately, perpetuate the idea that pairing up is the only acceptable way to live. At the same time, it’s a step toward acknowledging that for millions of Americans, close friends or siblings are the most significant “other” in their lives -- and they should not face financial penalty because of it.

As gay marriage supporters continue to push for the right of all Americans to have their loving commitments treated equally, I hope they also acknowledge the need for another kind of marriage equality. That’s a system in which marital status isn’t a socially sanctioned tool for discrimination -- especially when layoffs do us part.

Alison Lobron, a writer in Cambridge, is an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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