Why Not Benefits for Unmarried Couples?

by Dorian Solot and Marshall Miller

We’re one of those couples on Acting Governor Paul Cellucci’s list of Menaces to Society.

No, we’re not violent criminals. We haven’t cheated on our taxes. We’re hard-working, law-abiding, put-out-the-recycling-on-time citizens of Massachusetts.

But we’ve decided not to get married.

Paul Cellucci doesn’t want to encourage people like us. That’s why he declared last week that he would veto legislation passed unanimously by both houses of the Legislature that would have extended health benefits to domestic partners of state employees.

Forget equal pay for equal work, says Cellucci. Married couples are entitled to health benefits for their spouses and children. Cellucci made clear that he supports extending health benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian employees (though his veto squelched the notion that he was truly committed to supporting the rights of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community). It’s those dangerous unmarried male-female couples — we’re the only ones he really hates.

Has Cellucci heard that every state and the vast majority of municipalities that have already extended domestic partner benefits to their employees have included both same and opposite-sex couples?

Has anyone told the Governor that in Santa Barbara and Oakland, California, “gays only” domestic partner plans were later opened up to opposite-sex couples because the state Labor Commissioner ruled that the original plans discriminated on the basis of gender and sexual orientation?

Has Cellucci noticed that, given court decisions around the country, limiting benefits to same-sex couples has been decided to be discriminatory, illegal, and possibly unconstitutional? Has it occurred to him that passing a sexist law sets the stage for costly lawsuits and plenty of negative publicity?

One of the Governor’s pet projects is to reduce “father absence,” and he has said that denying health benefits to opposite-sex couples like us will strengthen the family. We’d like to point out that nationally, one-third of unmarried couples are parenting children. If Cellucci is truly worried about families without fathers, there are plenty of actions he can take legislatively. Targeting unmarried couples doesn’t make sense if you think about it — we’re couples. There is no absent father. Cellucci risks weakening our families by denying us health coverage for our partners and children. There is no logic in his argument.

People fall into the “unmarried couple” category for a variety of reasons. Many have strong personal, philosophical, economic, or religious beliefs for not wanting to marry their partners. For some there are significant financial reasons that prevent them from marrying. More than half of Americans cohabit — sometimes for years — before marrying. Frankly, it is none of the state’s business to intrude into matters as personal as whom one chooses as a spouse or domestic partner and when — or whether — one chooses to marry or not.

There have been stringent criteria established that couples would have to meet in order to be considered domestic partners. The proposed criteria in this case were based on Bank Boston’s domestic partner benefits plan, which is inclusive of all couples regardless of sex and sexual orientation. It is blatant sex discrimination on Cellucci’s part to decide that some domestic partners are more equal than others.

Cost shouldn’t be a factor in this decision, since non-sexist domestic partner plans around the country have seen enrollment increase by an average of only 1%. This is not an issue of money; it’s an issue of fairness.

Certainly, a discriminatory domestic partner plan that would provide benefits only to same-sex couples would satisfy some gays and lesbians. And indeed, it would be one small, long-overdue step toward making society an equitable place for all, regardless of sexual orientation. But selling out on some families in order to please others does not make Massachusetts an equitable place to live or work.

A version of this op-ed appeared in The Boston Globe on August 5, 1998.