The City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are currently discussing whether to keep or rescind domestic partner benefits for same-gender couples. The discussions come now as a result of legal marriage equality in North Carolina and across the country. But the city and county, as well as other municipalities and private companies, would be wise to keep the benefits and expand them to include not only same-gender couples, but also opposite-gender couples.
The story was first reported by The Charlotte Observer’s Steve Harrison in early July and reprinted in this issue at goqnotes.com/35903/.
Harrison asked city and county officials about their plans for the benefits, first enacted in January 2013 after a successful budgetary push by Councilmembers LaWana Mayfield and James “Smuggie” Mitchell.
“It’s being discussed at this time,” city spokesperson Catherine Bonfiglio told Harrison.
Harrison’s story cites several companies — including IBM, one of the first large corporations to offer benefits similar to spousal benefits to unmarried same-gender couples in the mid-1990s — that have since dropped the benefits and required couples to marry. Other companies, like Wells Fargo, have continued to offer the benefits to both same-gender and opposite-gender couples.
The city, county and others should follow Wells Fargo’s lead, for several reasons.
Local LGBT leaders hit upon some of those notes with the Observer.
“It depends on how inclusive they want to be,” said Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee Chair Scott Bishop. “If they want to remain competitive in hiring, they ought to extend domestic partner benefits to unmarried heterosexual couples.”
But the issue is far wider than economic competitiveness, touching on a variety of issues faced by families and couples of all stripes.
As our society has grown and changed, we’ve come to understand that family units are as diverse as the people who inhabit this planet. We know that some couples opt to marry for a variety of reasons, while others forego the legal wedding vows for their own, sometimes very personal, legal or financial considerations. There’s also an issue of independence and respect in family planning. Many couples might opt to live together for some time with an eye toward marriage, but working in the meantime on advancements in careers or education before feeling secure enough to finally enter into that specific legal contract.
For LGBT couples, we also don’t know exactly how the Supreme Court’s June ruling will play out over the next several years. Will it be adequately enforced by state and local governments? Will some face obstacles — be they legal or familial — in tying the knot? Will others find difficulties once they are legally married?
There are other considerations, too, primarily our growing understanding of how family and household units and relationships actually work in reality. As a society, we’ve placed legal marriage on a pedestal. But it’s certainly not the end-all, be-all of human relationships. We know that single parents often live with and co-parent with siblings, cousins, their parents or close, longtime family friends. They, too, should have the opportunity to see that their long-established household is adequately protected in healthcare coverage, family leave and other benefits.
Even those who have no children, but have opted to establish a household with longtime, close friends inevitably find their lives intertwined legally and financially. They, too, should have access to an empowering system of benefits that encourages health and stability.
Family and household structures differ dramatically across nations and cultures, across lines of racial, ethnic, sexual and gender diversity and across socioeconomic classes. Marriage, while often a laudable social institution, isn’t always the best or only choice for couples, families or friends. Employers should acknowledge, recognize and protect the diversity of their employees, their lives and experiences. By doing so, employers would essentially ensure their employees, their families, their children, our neighborhoods and our communities are stronger, more vibrant, more healthy and more active in creating the kinds of societies that flourish when individuals, families and others are empowered to achieve their fullest and best potential.
Some who steadfastly support so-called traditional marriage might balk at my suggestion here. They’ll likely say it undervalues, undercuts or de-emphasizes marriage. But I don’t believe — and I certainly don’t think the reality of our lived experiences reflect — that marriage and only marriage is solely responsible for contributing to longtime stability in families, neighborhoods and communities. Maybe once it did, when women were property and the power in marriage rested solely with men. But not anymore. A look at the divorce rate is just one sign among many of an institution not adequately or inclusively built for all people or all families’ needs.
Others will think my suggestion will carry a high price tag, but we shouldn’t allow financial costs to stand in the way of creating more empowered and healthy — and therefore more productive and happy — people, neighborhoods and communities. In reality, previous expansions of benefits have cost very little. That’s despite claims of skyrocketing healthcare costs from those once opposed to same-gender benefits. In Charlotte, only 17 people had signed up for domestic partner benefits.
If we truly care about creating a safe, healthy city for all our people, the city and county should lead by example. They should do what they can — something as small as an expansion in domestic partner benefits — to further stem the tide of poverty in a metro area ranked at the bottom for economic mobility.
When we recognize, protect and cherish the full diversity of all people and their families and households — including the extension of legal, financial, healthcare and other protections — the result can only be positive. : :