(Part V of our series Cracking the Internal Revenue Code: How the tax system rewards the rich)
American social conservatives are quick to criticize the gay rights movement for providing "special rights" to gays and lesbians. In fact, heterosexual Americans are those enjoying special rights, not only in the Internal Revenue Code but also elsewhere in law and government regulation.
Gay and lesbian Americans receive absolutely no federal protection from even institutionalized bigotry. Several important laws protect women, ethnic and racial minorities, veterans, and the physically handicapped from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. None of these federal laws protect gays or lesbians, although a few states and a host of municipalities extend such protections within their borders. But through marriage, whether by religious ceremonies or the most austere of civil ceremonies, straight Americans get special advantages in the areas of inheritance, pensions, social security, veteran's benefits, and health care.
The American press often notes the controversy in and out of the armed services about the military's prohibition against homosexuality. In order for gays and lesbians even to risk their lives in the armed forces, they must keep their sexual orientations hidden. If governmental discrimination against gays and lesbians ended at the edge of every Army base, then the battle for full civil rights would be a narrow one. It would try to force the armed forces to repeat what it did fifty years ago, to shed the mantle of homophobia as it shed the mantle of racism. But discrimination against gays and lesbians goes much further than the overt and covert discrimination in the armed forces.
Most discussion about marriage and its effects on taxpayers restricts itself to the "marriage penalty" inherent in a progressive tax system. Two persons with identical incomes will often pay more in taxes when married than when they were both single: the combined incomes will often push the couple into a higher tax bracket. Ironically, the conservatives who most often decry the marriage penalty are the same conservatives who decry wives working outside the home. When one spouse has little or no income, the marriage penalty is a marriage bonus because almost every tax bracket has a higher starting point for married persons filing joint returns. Straight couples can avoid the marriage penalty by not getting married, but lesbian and gay couples have no way to claim the marriage bonus if it were to apply to them.
Six years ago, as Hawaii made tentative steps toward allowing same-sex marriages, Congress passed The Defense of Marriage Act. It forced the federal government to recognize marriage as "only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife." It also allowed states to invalidate marriages that another state views as valid.
The advantages to marriage can far outstrip any economic hardship imposed by the marriage penalty. One huge advantage of marriage comes from the estate tax. If a married person dies, any inheritance by his or her spouse receives an automatic exemption from any estate tax, regardless of the amount involved. If he or she dies without leaving a will behind, his or her spouse has primary claim on the estate. In almost every state, unmarried couples do not receive these benefits—and gay and lesbian couples cannot even choose to be married in the eyes of the law.
A widow or widower becomes automatically eligible for social security benefits upon the death of his or her spouse, if that spouse worked long enough to become eligible for benefits. Social Security, however, has no benefits for unmarried partners—and gay and lesbian couples cannot even choose to be married in the eyes of the law.
Anyone in a nursing home is eligible for Medicaid once he or she exhausts most of his or her assets. The healthy husband or wife of the Medicaid patient may keep a jointly-owned home. An unmarried partner has no such right—and gay and lesbian couples cannot even choose to be married in the eyes of the law.
The Family and Medical Leave Act forces most employers to offer unpaid leave to most employees to care for a sick child or for a sick husband or wife. It does not require such leave with respect to unmarried partners—and gay and lesbian couples cannot even choose to be married in the eyes of the law.
Even an issue as simple as health insurance has a built-in tax benefit for married couples. If an employer pays insurance premiums for a worker's spouse, those premiums are not taxable to the worker. This exemption treats health insurance for straight families the same way as health insurance for single employees. But any health insurance premiums that an employer pays for an unmarried partner of a worker are taxable—and gay and lesbian couples cannot even choose to be married in the eyes of the law.
Heterosexual privilege is what allows straight people to be publicly straight, to be affectionate with their partners, with the full support of the community, unless they do something truly corybantic in public. Heterosexual privilege is also the right to be married, and the right to enjoy the monetary and social benefits that married couples have. Society welcomes newly-married heterosexual couples with presents and congratulations. It rewards them with tax and legal policies designed to strengthen marriage.
American society does not offer these privileges to homosexual couples. While many Americans are tolerant of gays and lesbians, the tax system and numerous other laws fail to provide nearly the same encouragement to gay and lesbian couples as they do to straight, married couples. What harm could come of rewarding all long-term relationships? As a straight, married man myself, I ask America, what are we afraid of?
(End of series)
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