Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Not the National Coming Out Day conversation I expected

If you're on Facebook, you may have noticed a number of folks over the last few weeks with standardized status updates that read:

[Name] is (a lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender). There are X days until National Coming Out Day and I pledge to have heartfelt conversations for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. Donate your status and join me by clicking here: http://apps.facebook.com/equalityconversation/.

I didn't donate my status -- for one, I rarely do apps, since I like my privacy -- but I did post one or two status updates to this effect.

I'm always surprised when people who know me at all well are surprised to find out I'm a lesbian. It's less startling, but still frustrating, when people are surprised I'm bi, because there's still an assumption of monosexuality in this culture: either you're homosexual or you're heterosexual. Folks who are startled to learn I'm bi either know I've had successful romantic relationships with men and assume those are invalid now (because I must be monosexual), or assume that because I have been involved only with women since they've known me and am not that interested in men, I must be monosexual.

But those are still the conversations I more or less expect to have. The kind where I refer to my partner or spouse in conversation at an event, the other person asks what my husband does, and I say, "My wife is a mathematician," and they blink. The kind where someone I've known for a long time says in shock, "You had a husband!?," and I say, "Yes, my first partner was male, and yes, I was out before we got together. He took me to my first Pride event."

But these conversations have progressed and changed over time. For example, more and more over the last few years, the conversations I've been having around the fact that I'm a lesbian center around civil rights, and especially marriage equality.

And while there's one little thread on my Facebook Wall about National Coming Out Day and how people identify and what labels mean (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer), there's another, completely different, conversation I've ended up having about the reality of my life as a lesbian in today's society.

And it really does feel like a coming-out conversation: Here is my reality. Here is the truth of my experience.

And as with many other such conversations over the years, I'm finding someone I'm talking with disbelieves the uncomfortable truth.

This person isn't a bigot. They seem to be a well-meaning straight person, but someone who just doesn't want to believe the discrimination I live with every day is as bad as I say -- that their legally-sanctioned heterosexual privilege is, in fact, just that.

(All names changed but mine; all quotes paraphrased except where indicated.)

The conversation has gone something like this:

  • Friend A posts to their Facebook status that they're grateful to the marriage equality movement for helping them understand how many rights and privileges go with legal marriage [which this person has].

Conversation ensues in the comment thread, and then it gets interesting:

  • Person B: I thought it was just the death tax that can't be addressed in a contract; what other rights can't they have?; of course anyone should marry whomever they want!; isn't Toys R Us great, they give domestic partners full health insurance.
  • Person C: Oh, no, there's the whole hospital visitation thing; do you want to wrangle with a resistant family member in order to say goodbye to a dying partner?
  • Person B: Wrong! If you have a living will and a signed and notorized agreement, the family can't keep you away!
  • Person C: Uh-huh. So, my husband's in the hospital, and I have to dig out my legal paperwork before I go to the hospital?; in my case, take the bus home from work, find the paperwork, and drive back into town, when on top of it I'm probably not safe to drive?; assuming we've gone to the expense and trouble of getting such paperwork?; oh, and by the way, because we're an opposite-gender couple, they're not going to ask us for a copy of our marriage license, and we're in less need of powers of attorney and living wills, because we're legally married.
  • Person B: Gosh, it's really awful when family members are jerks, and I'm really sorry for anyone who has to deal with that; but you do kind of know what you're getting into; spending $100 on a contract is nothing at all for the peace of mind it gives you, and of course if I had to do that, I'd know exactly where my paperwork is; so what else are the issues?, I know there aren't a lot of people who have to worry about taxes on huge estates.
  • Me (direct quote):
If you're not legally married, which NO same-gender couples are on a federal level, you have to pay income taxes on your health insurance, b/c it's a taxable benefit.

I can't collect my wife's social security if she dies first.

Health care powers of attorney aren't enforceable everywhere. There was a Seattle woman who died ALONE in FL when the hospital refused to honor the couple's legal paperwork - and her kids couldn't say goodbye, b/c the hospital also refused to honor the adoption.

It doesn't matter how much money we spend on legal paperwork: it's not the same protection.

Imagine that every time you move, you have to get divorced and then re-married in your new town, county, or state. And that benefits that depend on the date you get married got re-set every single time.

Imagine that in addition to that, every time you move, you have to re-do your will, living will, and financial and health care powers of attorney, b/c getting remarried doesn't cover everything.

Imagine that if you get married and move, and then want to get divorced, you have to move back to the original state for a year first.

The NY Times had several good articles recently:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/03/your-money/03money.html?_r=1&hp=&pagewanted=all

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/03/us/03texas.html

  • Person B (with lots of exclamation points): But everyone pays taxes on health insurance, regardless of who their partner is!
  • Person C: Stasa, I figured you'd be up on this kind of stuff; and what about the Seattle woman whose partner died when their house flooded, and even with a sympathetic family and good state laws, she had to get permission from the family?; why should anyone who's willing to make this commitment have to jump through these hoops?; why should it matter who your partner is?; I have heterosexual privilege, and that's not fair; my adult child does not; this is wrong.
  • Person D: It's ridiculous what people have to go through; it makes me ill; this is unfair and wrong; it's time to change the law.
  • Me (direct quote):
Person B, there definitely is a difference. My health insurance through my partner is taxed very differently than my health insurance was through my former employer.

Employer contributions to health insurance premiums are NOT counted as taxable income for workers whose coverage includes themselves, legal spouses, or dependents. As soon as you add a non-dependent adult -- such as a domestic partner -- that person's health insurance benefit becomes taxable income.

My family most certainly *does* have a higher tax burden for my health insurance than if my partner and I could be married legally, or if I had insurance through an employer -- because my health insurance counts as taxable income. (We even get a separate little income statement for it.)

Person B, you said, "...what you were dealing with 100 dollars at most for your well being is nothing..." First off, $100 is out of reach for a lot of people. Secondly, $100 buys you NOTHING in terms of legal paperwork and protection. This kind of paperwork, if it's going to stand up in court, starts at thousands of dollars if there's ANY property or any children involved. And court comes AFTER the shit hits the fan, and your partner or kid is in the hospital and you're not being allowed to see them or make medical decisions for them. For way too many of us, court comes after our partner or kid is *dead*. And *that* is discrimination at work.


Person C, I'm particularly up to my eyeballs in this crap right now (which you probably know), since we just moved and are in the process of registering our civil union with the state.

Okay, folks, if all the other paperwork does the trick, and legal, civil marriage doesn't matter, then I'm sure every heterosexual legally married couple in the country would be just fine with not being legally married but getting to do all the other paperwork instead.
  • Person B: But your child is your child; no one can change that; even if you adopt, that is the same for everyone; health care is always taxable income, it's about how your employer sets it up not about your "legal status"; "I am sorry but you are very wrong!"
  • Person A: This is a great discussion!; what else do folks think?
  • Me (direct quote):
Bullshit. I wish I was wrong. Tell me I'm wrong when you've lived my life, paid my taxes, and dealt with what I deal with every day. Believe me, I'm much more aware of my legal rights on a daily basis than you could possibly be.

Tell us we're wrong to all those parents in MI whose legal right to their children is now in jeopardy b/c second parent adoptions may now be invalid and illegal. Tell it to the kids in FL who were kept out of their mother's room while she was dying b/c they had two moms, legally, and the hospital refused to recognize them as her kids. Tell it to the IRS if I don't pay income tax on the insurance premium my partner's employer pays.

Person B, if you are legally married to an opposite-gender partner, and you get health insurance through your husband's employer, you do NOT pay income tax on the portion of the premium that his employer pays. That's a fact. It's the law. It has NOTHING to do with how an employer sets it up and everything to do with legal rights you have that I don't.

And if you still don't believe me, do some of your own research instead of just telling me I'm wrong. Google "taxable health insurance."

Person A, thanks for starting this conversation!
  • Person B: In NJ and MN, we absolutely pay taxes on health insurance!; "I don't know what planet you live on" but we pay taxes on insurance for our kids.
  • Person C: I've never gotten a separate income statement for my spouse's insurance, b/c it's included in the regular W2; has anyone else?; so how can we say Stasa's wrong when she's the one with the experience with this?; you're only your child's legal parent if your state recognizes the adoption, and if your state doesn't recognize gay adoption or second parent adoption, you are up the creek; these are inequalities that shouldn't exist, and no one should have to pay more than someone else for equal protection under the law anyway; why would anyone be okay with this?; this is discrimination.
  • Person B: I agree, but you still have to pay taxes; unless the family of origin is totally horrible, why would a kid be prevented from visiting?
  • Person C: "Person B, have you read any of the articles Stasa posted?"; I don't know why anyone would keep a child away, but it *does* happen; it happened this year; it doesn't have to be a family, it can be a nurse who decides they don't like gay people; it can happen, it does happen, it's wrong; and sure, you can go to court afterwards, when it's too late; same problem with living wills; family or hospital decides not to honor it, they don't honor it; also, remember there's a difference between state and federal income tax, and make sure you're comparing apples to apples and not apples to oranges.
Whew!

A couple of things really got me about this conversation:

One is Person B's complete unwillingness to believe the truth of my experience when it doesn't match their experience, or what they think. Of course it doesn't match their experience: they have heterosexual privilege. This person isn't living their life as a lesbian, trying to protect themselves and their family. I am also reminded of the bumper sticker, "Don't believe everything you think." For years, my reaction was, How random. But, really: just because you think it, doesn't make it true. Just because you think $100 gets someone else equal protection under the law, just because you think I don't pay more taxes than you do, does not make those things true. (But gosh, what if it was! My life would certainly be easier.)

Two is that I am grateful to straight allies, and queer folks in legal opposite-gender marriages, who stand up for the truth.

Three is, how amazing are folks who don't want to see their privilege. I've mostly dealt with this in the context of sexism ("Of course women in my company are paid the same as men") and racism ("Of course I'm comfortable when Black people come into my store"). I've dealt with it some in heterosexism ("I don't care what you do in the bedroom, but do you have to flaunt it by holding hands?"), religious discrimination ("Of course she can wear a cross, but people will be uncomfortable if you wear a pentagram"), and other kinds of discrimination. I know I have my own blind spots.

But it's been a while since I went toe-to-toe (keyboard-to-keyboard?) with someone who just plain doesn't believe me about the everyday reality of my life in quite this way.

So my tiny little mind is blown again.

And that's the conversation about equality that I had for National Coming Out Day.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

ALWAYS for gay/bi rights, but this has opened my eyes!

staśa said...

Just a reminder: if you use the "Anonymous" option, please at least sign your first name. I do not, in general, allow completely anonymous comments.

I'm glad this opened your eyes more, and I'm curious -- in what way or ways?

Thanks!

Amy said...

Stasa said, "It has NOTHING to do with how an employer sets it up and everything to do with legal rights you have that I don't."

I HATE that I have legal rights that you do not. This is wrong in every way. It goes against everything we Americans say we stand for, and my patience is wearing really thin with those who refuse to see this.

I wish I had something more positive or helpful to say. It just seems so obvious that none of us are free until all of us are free, and that's that.
XO--Amy

staśa said...

Well, it does me good to know people who have access to these rights are losing patience, too.

I know the courts have consistently rejected this as an example of gender discrimination, but I still see it that way. Amy, you and I have the same rights as long as we marry someone who is legally defined as being of the opposite gender. It's only if one of us wants to marry someone of the same gender. It's cracked.

Anyway, I think outrage is an appropriate response.

And thank you for the comment, for letting me know...

Love,
Stasa

OtherYs said...

Amy said, and I agree: "I HATE that I have legal rights that you do not."
Worse, is that the legal rights that you DO have through legal contracts are being ignored with impunity by medical staff on the grounds that their religion says you are "less than." This would not now be tolerated if the issue was race -- thank the gods we've come that far, at least.
I've witnessed a doctor purposely withholding information from loved ones because HE didn't approve of their union. People fighting cancer shouldn't have to fight bigotry to get proper treatment.

staśa said...

OtherYs, thanks for your comment.

Let me just be clear about a couple of things.

1) This isn't just medical staff. This happens with other people in authority, such as law enforcement, etc.


2) I've had some very, very good experiences with medical professionals respecting my marriage, without my having to whip out legal paperwork to prove it. Since between us we are managing several chronic medical conditions -- including when one of us has been traveling -- this has been very helpful.

I've also had good experiences, when I didn't expect them, with law enforcement folks.

BUT, the bottom line is, my rights should not depend on someone's good will.

And religion is just the obvious reason. When you down below the surface, it's not about religious objections -- or about as much as religious objections were the real reasons behind resistance to racial integration of schools... Bigotry's bigotry, and the religious right has dominated this discourse; but most people who have strong knee-jerk homophobic reactions aren't religious; and there are plenty of religious communities and people of faith whose faith calls them to public support of equal civil rights.

(Where did this soap box come from? Sorry to preach at you!)

Mary Ellen said...

There needs to be a sea change where the outrage is shared by all of us because this disparity in basic rights is genuinely outrageous. This outrage is hard to generate for those of us who are experiencing the privilege accorded to opposite gendered unions. My Meeting is opening up a dialogue about whether we should have legal marriages performed in our Meeting if not all members are allowed this privilege. I confess this scares me and I have knee-jerk mental responses (but it won't do any good, etc. etc.). But it's a dialogue at the right level of seriousness. You're not on a soapbox - just telling the truth.

staśa said...

Thanks, Mary Ellen. (But I nonetheless distinctly felt a soapbox under my feet by the end of my last comment, *smile*.)

I know there's also some concern and discomfort for Friends whose Meetings are considering this, because at one point Friends had to work so hard for our marriages to be recognized legally at all. So I can see that being a real challenge for folks.

Beloved Wife and I going through something similar right now, because we're in the process of registering our civil union in our state. It's everything-but-marriage, and identical except that 1) it's recognized only by this state and 2) it's not called marriage. So, even though we had a mixed-tradition Quaker and Pagan wedding more than five years ago, and our certificate was signed by more than 200 people, we can't just go get a civil union license -- we have to have a ceremony in order for it to be legally binding, and an agent of the state has to pronounce us. Argh! We're negotiating with the mayor's office to determine how much is cultural expectation and how much is legal requirement, and I think it will be fine, but it's still very frustrating. I will not go on now, because I have much more to say than will fit in a comment, but there are big conflicts for us with the truth of what happened five years ago, with our firm beliefs in the separation of church and state (ie, we've already had a religious wedding, so this is purely civil), and with the Testimony of Integrity. Ai-ai-ai.

I will hold your Meeting in the Light, that you may be led clearly forward in the path that is right for you. I hear clearly that this is hard, and I honor you and your Meeting for being willing to start to embrace this work.

Hystery said...

Stasa,

I tend to get really emotional about this topic. Injustice sucks and I'll leave it at that for now since I still have to get through my day without feeling the need to kick things. I'm just feeling really annoyed that people don't listen. This whole thing is not that hard. Anything short of absolute equality for all people degrades all of us.

I did also want to offer that when my husband took my name when we married (perfectly legal in New York State although rarely done), we could not have imagined how many times it would result in us having to jump through extra hoops to do the simplest things. What happens is that bureaucrats, clerks, bank reps, etc. who disagree with my husband's legal right to change his name to mine or who are ignorant of NY law require us to provide extra documentation to prove who he is, they lecture him, and they generally make life frustrating. We end up having to explain or provide evidence of the law or appeal to their superiors to intervene. Meanwhile, we're delayed in our ability to do business, get health care, etc.

So, if a legally married heterosexual couple has to put up with this kind of crap over something as minor as the man taking the woman's name, I cannot really imagine how infuriating it would be if my spouse were female instead of male.

staśa said...

Hystery, knowing you the little I do, I can see that this would drive you nuts.

Thanks for sharing your experience with your husband's name change. Wow. I've heard what friends have gone through who are in opposite-gender civil marriages but whose kids have different last names, but that's nothing compared to what your family is coping with. Aiee.

Sexism is alive and well. And homophobia and heterosexism are weapons of sexism and misogyny.

I'm sorry to send your blood pressure up, but grateful for your comment.