Inequality is a word with many rich historical associations in the American experience. When I was young, I learned about Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and the oppression that the African American community has historically faced in our nation’s development. We learned about women struggling to attain equal rights. And today society witnesses yet another struggle for the recognition of basic human rights: the inequalities facing the LGBT community.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage. The remaining thirty-three states either have banned same-sex marriage entirely, or legislation designed to recognize same-sex marriage is tied up with legal appeals.
The issues are far deeper than simply bestowing society’s sanction on a special personal union. In the United States, important rights and privileges are granted to married persons that are not granted to same-sex couples living in states where same-sex marriage is banned.
Take social security, for example, where benefit eligibility is impacted by legal marriage.
- “There is a one-time death benefit of $255 payable to a surviving spouse, or, if there is no spouse, to a minor child.”
- “After a spouse’s death, Social Security allows the surviving spouse to keep collecting his or her own Social Security payment or to collect the full payment of the deceased spouse.”
- “The ‘retirement spousal benefit’ (the spousal benefit) is a benefit for a non-earning or lower-earning spouse that allows him or her to collect an amount that is equal to half the other spouse’s Social Security Benefit.”
- “When a worker qualifies for Social Security disability benefits, the spouse may be eligible for a monthly benefit of up to 50% of the disabled worker’s benefit.”
Members of the LGBT who are married in states that have legalized same-sex marriage receive the full range of these Social Security benefits. But same-sex couples living in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage, and those who are legally married but have since moved to a state that bans same-sex marriage, are ineligible to receive Social Security spousal benefits.
Social Security is just one example. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, workers are eligible for 12 unpaid weeks of leave for the purpose of caring for an ailing spouse, and 26 weeks for an injured service member spouse, over a one-year period. Job-protected leave for childbirth, adoption, or tending to a sick child is also provided. Again, married same-sex couples living in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage, and same sex-couples unable to marry in the state of their residence, are denied access to these important benefits.
Certain Medicare, Medicaid, veteran and military spousal benefits are other benefits unavailable to same-sex couples in these states.
And again: there are no federal protections from job discrimination for the LGBT community. Only twenty-one states have banned job discrimination based on sexual orientation, and even fewer (seventeen states) prohibit job discrimination based on gender identification. The majority of states simply provide no workplace protections against discrimination.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits “employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.” The Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would simply add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the list of protected classes. ENDA would apply to all businesses except those under 15 employees, religious organizations and the military.
ENDA, which has repeatedly been introduced in Congress over the last twenty years but has never been adopted, would confer no special treatment on members of the LGBT community. It would merely guarantee equal treatment, which according to the Williams Institute, is much needed:
Since the mid-1990s, fifteen studies found that 15% to 43% of LGB respondents experienced discrimination in the workplace– 8% to17% were fired or denied employment, 10% to 28% were denied a promotion or given negative performance evaluations, 7% to 41% were verbally/physically abused or had their workplace vandalized, and 10% to 19% reported receiving unequal pay or benefits.
And then there are the more personal, human considerations. Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond were celebrating eighteen years together while on vacation with their three adopted children when Lisa fell ill. After being admitted to a hospital, Janice did everything in her power to see her ailing partner. She was told by a social worker that she “was in an anti-gay city and state” and that she would not be permitted to see Lisa or make medical decisions on her behalf. Despite Janice having power of attorney, Lisa died alone because the hospital simply would not allow for her and the children to be by her side. They waited for hours in a small waiting room nearby until Lisa eventually passed away.
After eighteen years in a committed relationship, Janice was prevented from saying goodbye to Lisa because no law protected her right to provide comfort to her partner at life’s end. Their three children were denied the opportunity to share in one of life’s most powerful and meaningful events, an experience that children of heterosexual couples are routinely afforded. This is wrong.
The traditional defenders of the status quo, principally organized religious groups, continue their staunch defense of the traditional marriage definition of one man, one woman. But same-sex couples do not need to be married in church, and churches cannot be forced to bestow their sacramental blessing on unions, which contradict their doctrine. And — just like with equal rights for African Americans and women – the United States has long moved past the denial of legal rights to its members in the face of centuries of oppression of groups identified as different than those of the dominant identity.
I don’t like basketball. I’m short, uncoordinated and think it’s boring. Even though I don’t like basketball, I think my peers should still be allowed to play or watch basketball.
You don’t have to be gay to recognize the unfairness. You don’t even have to like the act of being gay. It’s not about sex; it’s about respect. We are all diminished as humans when we deny basic human rights freely granted to the majority. No one should be made to feel that they’re a second-class citizen because of who they love. No one should be denied legal rights because of who they love. And society should not care who its members love, and must no longer pick and choose on which unions to bestow its rights and privileges.