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After Charlotte rescinds domestic partner benefits, Mecklenburg County can still make right decision

Editorial: City of Charlotte wrongly rescinds benefits, but Mecklenburg County still has option to retain, expand to more households

On Monday, Charlotte City Council voted 9-0 to eliminate domestic partner benefits for unmarried same-gender partners. The benefits, enacted in 2013, were meant to provide equitable health coverage and other benefits for the partners of LGBT employees, who, until recently, could not legally wed.

In making the decision, city officials said legal marriage equality made the benefits redundant. Employees who are legally wed or plan to wed can still take advantage of the city’s regular spousal benefits. Those who don’t may be eligible for coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

But as I wrote in my editorial on July 17, the benefits should have remained and should have been extended.

Mecklenburg County commissioners will vote in August on whether to also drop their same-gender domestic partner benefits. Unlike the city, the county should make the common-sense move to retain benefits and expand them to more households.

The reasons for expanding benefits to a wider diversity of households — instead of basing benefits solely on marital status — are numerous. I hit upon several of them in that former editorial.

From the editorial:

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.

Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer is a staff writer for QNotes. He previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015.