Illinois’ civil union law undeniably brings a greater sense of equality between same-sex couples and married couples. That’s a good thing – love is love, and if married couples get hundreds of benefits and protections, same-sex couples should have that opportunity too.
But now that the law has passed, it’s time to look beyond what civil unions – and marriage – mean to same- and opposite-sex couples, and extend the dialogue to what regulatory emphasis on long-term romantic relationships means for singles. Many individuals either by choice or circumstance aren’t or won’t be in romantic relationships but still form support systems. Those systems might not fit the two-parents-plus-kids mold, but they’re still based in love and concern and are best described as families – ones still worthy of protection.
As the civil union debate highlights a number of inequities for same-sex couples by contrasting how different types of romantic relationships are treated, it provides an opportunity to see how those inequities extend to the “families” of those defined as “single.” It’s those inequities that I discussed over the phone in December, shortly after Illinois’ civil union bill passed, with two writers – Bella DePaulo and Yasmin Nair.
“Why should something as fundamental as whether you have access to health insurance or retirement benefits – why should that turn on whether you’re married or single?” asks DePaulo, author of Being Single and a California-based psychology professor, who has dubbed blatant and pervasive discrimination against the non-married as “singlism.”
She notes, among a laundry list of offenses, that it’s not fair for a single person’s contributions to Social Security to go back into the system upon his or her death when, in contrast, a married person’s contributions are passed on to his or her chosen recipient – the spouse. She adds that it’s unequal compensation when a married worker can add a spouse to a health insurance plan at a reduced rate while single people cannot add another adult.
That very inequity is something Chicago-based writer, activist and self-identified “queer” Yasmin Nair experienced personally when she injured her knee. Her dear friend, who worked for a corporation, attempted to enroll her in his health insurance but couldn’t because they weren’t married and she wasn’t his child.
“Society says that only certain kinds of love and affection count,” says Nair, who contributes to “Against Equality,” an online collective of queer thinkers who challenge mainstream gay and lesbian politics. She says gay marriage, besides ignoring bigger issues such as gay teen suicide and homelessness, is an extremely conservative approach to equality. “If you’re not in that kind of coupled relationship, we don’t consider you worthy,” Nair says about the way most policy is currently written.
In a 2006 strategic vision entitled “Beyond same-sex marriage,” more than 250 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) scholars and activists, including Nair, urge less exclusive policies for dealing with families. The group defines “family” in much broader terms than a mom and dad household, or even a mom and mom or dad and dad household, with kids. What about two sisters living together, making ends meet by sharing their assets, or two elderly friends, one caring for the other as he or she struggles through loss of independence?
“All citizens need to be taken care of,” Nair says.
The beyond marriage group credits the LGBT movement for expanding Americans’ concept of family beyond the traditional two-parent heterosexual household but argues that a limitation to equality among different types of romantic couples is a disservice to all other types of families, which are becoming more and more prevalent.
There is evidence of some regulatory progress toward a broader view of family. On the federal level, a new health care rule means patients can name anyone, not just relatives, as approved visitors. And, according to the beyond marriage vision paper, like-minded coalitions are making waves in other states. The group also applauds Salt Lake City, which, despite vehement opposition, granted city employees the power to name “an adult designee,” not just a spousal-like relation, as a health insurance beneficiary.
Though Illinois’ civil union law extends protections beyond heterosexual couples, its focus on romantic relationships leaves many “families” without protections and continues to give “singles” second-class status. Though the law falls short in that aspect, it provides an opportunity for discussion, if not in the halls of government, at least in our homes. Change has to start somewhere.
Contact Rachel Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org.