Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Gay Marriage: Choose Your Words Carefully

One of the surprising side-effects of the push for same-sex civil marriage that I’ve found is a revision of the words I have to (or am willing to) use about same-sex relationships.

As I wrote in “Letter of Comment — Spousal Equivalent” on January 21 (and expanded further here), there has long been a list of terms that people would apply to their same-sex relationships: roommate, boyfriend/girlfriend, lover, partner, life partner, longterm companion, fuck buddy, daddy, boy, master, slave, sugar daddy, mate, soulmate, chew toy,…

In particular, we (the gay community) would often in the past use “husband” or “wife” to describe a partner.  Sometimes this was quite serious, with couples who had lived together in a “marriage-like” relationship for several years, possibly including a commitment ceremony and an exchange of rings.  Often, though, this was used as (ironic?) shorthand for a gay or lesbian person’s “boyfriend / girlfriend / lover / partner / whatever he or she is”, so long as it was perceived to be a serious, ongoing relationship.  Except for those who had had actually religious ceremonies, the use of the term was not accurate (and even when accurate, was not “legal”).

Now, though, we have people who hold actual marriage licenses from various jurisdictions, making the use of “husband” or “wife” fully accurate and, to varying degrees in varying places (and hopefully soon less varying and in more places), legal as well.

This makes the use of the terms in non-accurate scenarios distasteful to me.  We are not married, so Rusty is not my “husband”.  I’m not sure what term we should use — we’ve been dating each other exclusively for almost eleven months, using the “L” word (no relation to the TV show) for much of that, and living together for three, including my acting as a step-parent for his teenage daughter — but we’re not married, and we haven’t really discussed getting married beyond that we aren’t ready to do so yet.

If we (as a community) are going to value the actions of same-sex couples who have taken the marriage leap, treating them like the pioneers they are, then I think we have to consciously avoid ironic and joking casual uses of the terms in order to avoid lessening those other relationships.

(Of course, intentional ironic and joking uses are another matter.)

Updated on January 3, 2011

Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Gay Marriage: Change Begins at Work

The software company I work for [Adobe Systems] was one of the early adopters of domestic partner benefits for its employees, back in 1994 or so.  (Although it probably brought them in because of acquiring a smaller company which already had them at the time [Aldus], rather than generating them independently.)

However, the world has moved on, and while the benefits are still available, the means of securing them is rather dated in today’s world.

Our Domestic Partners policy is fairly standard for what was being instituted by high tech companies in the early 1990s.  The usual line of thought was that, for couples who were not married, there had to be a solid indication of a dedicated, intimate relationship.  (This was for either same sex or opposite sex couples, as there could be reasons for the latter to need to secure some benefits for their partners without being married.  A few companies explicitly limited their benefits only to opposite-sex couples, though.)  They didn’t want to be giving any random twosome the benefits, since the intent was to provide some of the benefits of marriage for those who couldn’t (for whatever reason) get married.

As such, couples were required to apply for the benefits and fulfill a raft of requirements, including living together, sharing expenses jointly, and doing so for a full 12 months prior to getting the benefits, and waiting a similar 12-month period before listing a new domestic partner in the event of dissolving the first partnership.  While a bit unwieldy, this did seem to prove a dedication; no one would be platonically moving in with their buddy who worked for a high-tech company and getting benefits the next week.

(On some level, this was AIDS-phobia related.  AIDS drugs were God-awful expensive at the time, and one of the underlying fears was that someone would take on a dying buddy — not a genuine lover/partner, but just a friend — who had no health care and would build up big health care costs to be defrayed by the company, and possibly that they might do this repeatedly, sequentially with multiple people.  And you know, much though we’d like to pretend otherwise, there are certainly people who would have used the system in just this way if they could have.)

Of course, these same hurdles were not present for opposite-sex married couples.  They don’t have to “apply” for the benefits; they just have to announce that they now have a husband or wife (fill out a “change of status” form), and the coverage is automatic.  They don’t have a one-year waiting period; they can be married on Sunday and be covered on Monday, then divorce on Tuesday and remarry on Wednesday, getting immediate coverage for the new spouse.  They don’t even have to live together or even see one another again after the marriage.  And if they want, they can marry someone simply to secure health benefits for them; no one can say “boo” about it.  (Not that any of this happens regularly, but it certainly could.)

The gay and lesbian employees never made too much of a fuss about this, since (a) we were getting some benefits rather than none (and some more than we used to get) and (b) since we couldn’t get married, our relationships didn’t have to be treated like a marriage.  Second-class citizenship was better than no citizenship at all.

Today, the world has moved on.  Employees of our company can register their domestic partnerships with King County (Seattle, where we have a major office), the state of California (where we have a major office in San Jose), and other state and local governments around the country.  They can get a Civil Union in Vermont.  They can get a legal marriage in British Columbia and Ontario (where we have a major office), or the Netherlands (where we have an office) and other European countries.  They will, come May 17, presumably be able to get legally married in Massachusetts (where we have an office), and they are getting married (with as yet questionable legality) in San Francisco and Portland and New Mexico and New York.

Members of our gay and lesbian employees group (I’m on the committee) are working with representatives of our Human Resources organization (and we started doing so last November, before any of the 2004 hullabaloo started) to get our company’s policy changed.  We want the company to treat our employees who have taken the step of formalizing their relationships (registered domestic partnership, civil unions, or marriages recognized in local jurisdictions if not throughout the United States) to not have to go through extra hurdles in getting their benefits from the company.  No need to apply for the benefits, just state the partner’s name on the same form as for opposite-sex marriage changes.  No need for a waiting period if the partnership has been legal registered by a government authority.  (Note that most couples who take that registration step will likely have already achieved the 12-month period, or at least will be close to it.  Very few will try to scam the system, and the policy can be crafted/tweaked later to weed out and punish those individuals without creating hurdles for the honest employees.)

We have a certain amount of hope that we will succeed in this endeavor, although the standard behavior of the company (of any company, really) tends to be “aggressively neutral” at best, not wanting to either lead or trail the pack in controversial arenas.  We’ve already had a couple meetings with HR where they were quite willing to listen to our desires.  We’ve identified several couples within the company who have registered partnerships, civil unions, or marriages in either Canada or San Francisco.  And now both San Jose and Seattle (where the company’s two largest offices are located) are moving to recognize such same-sex civil marriages for their city employees and general residents, which will give extra leverage to get the company to do likewise.

In summary: don’t forget about the benefits, rights, and responsibilities that you may currently have.  Make sure that they stay up to date with society.

Updated on January 5, 2011
We eventually got the bulk of what we were requesting: recognition by the company of governmental registration and the ability to use it to secure Domestic Partner benefits in lieu of the various other “proof” required.

One notable thing we asked for which didn't get approved was recognition of international same-sex marriages, such that a married Canadian couple moving to the United States would have their marriage treated as a full-fledged marriage for company insurance.  But this was a limitation of what the US-based insurance companies would be willing to do rather than what the company was willing to do, so such a couple could only be covered in the United States as Domestic Partners (until foreign same-sex marriages are properly recognized, of course).

Tortured Phrasing

Want to really torture someone who is from the end of the Baby Boomer generation through Generation X?  (Roughly age 30–45.)

Ask them to say the letters of the alphabet… without singing it.  Without using any of the standard Sesame Street phrasing.  No slurring together of “LMNOP”, no grouping of “QRS” and “TUV”.

Not cruel enough?  Make them recite the Preamble of the United States Constitution, but not sing it, a là School House Rock.  “We the people / In order to form a more perfect union / Establish justice / Ensure domestic tranquility-ee-ee / ….”

Have them do a dramatic reading of the theme songs of The Brady Bunch or Gilligan’s Island.

It’s amazing how ingrained these bits of pop culture are in our psyches.  I can almost manage these stunts, but I inevitably get tripped up by the meter around the word “and” (“Do ordain… and establish” or “the Professor and… Mary Ann”).

Added video links on January 4, 2011

Monday, March 8, 2004

Gay Marriage: Unanswerable Questions

On the radio this morning, talking to same-sex civil marriage supporters, talk jock Rusty Humphries claimed he was trying to take emotion out of the question and was just trying to ask questions that the people he was talking to could not answer.  (Of course, what he was really trying to do was to force them to answer questions based on emotion, at which point he could either goad them into raving or just hang up on them.  That's how most talk radio works.)

The tables got turned at one point, though.

He was using the tack about marriage being for raising kids.  The person on the phone commented that gay and lesbian couples could raise kids as well.  Rusty declared that this was different, because those weren’t their kids, that they weren’t from a mixture of the two parents’ DNA.  The caller then pushed to the divorce matter: what about those kids who come from a family where the natural parents are married, and then the couple gets divorced, and then remarries, such that the people raising the kids aren’t both of the natural parents?  This is treated as perfectly acceptable in our society.  How is it then horribly different when the people raising the kids are the same sex, with perhaps only one being the natural parent?

No response from the right winger, just a quick change to a new question.  Couldn’t answer the question without emotion, I guess.  Point, our side.

Updated on March 9, 2004

Updated on Decemeber 29, 2010

Friday, March 5, 2004

Gay Marriage: The Brass Ring

Why is same-sex civil marriage so important?  Why this, why now?

Because it’s the “brass ring.”

(History Lesson: Old-time carousels would have a contraption where people sitting on the outside ring of horses could reach out and try to snag a ring.  Most were iron [or whatever], but a few were brass.  Grab a brass ring and you got to ride again for free.  The last time I was in Santa Cruz, the carousel at the Beach Boardwalk there had such a “ring grabber,” and you were then supposed to toss the ring at a target.  I think you got a free ride if you hit the target, or something like that.)

In this case, the civil marriage is (rightly) seen as the thing that will wipe away all other questions about same-sex civil rights.  How can you rationalize disallowing adoption to a legitimately married couple?  How can a health plan not cover a person’s legal spouse?  How can the military kick out someone who is in a legally-recognized same-sex relationship unless their actual actions are contrary to military discipline?

Given this big right, lots of other things come automatically, and the things that don’t become way harder to defend the restrictions on.

Added link on December 27, 2010

Thursday, March 4, 2004

Patent Leather Shoes

What is the one patent number that you have probably encountered — or at least read — the most?

It’s something that is in front of you almost every time you use the product.  And it’s something you probably read every time you see it, because you have nothing better to do at the time.

It usually involves text like “Reduces the risk of disease transmission through paper towel waste”.  And “120 V 60 Hz”.

That’s right.  Hot air hand dryers, found in every public restroom in the country.  You’re standing there, facing the wall, knowing that the thing will shut off when your hands are only about 85% dry (which leaves you wondering whether running it another 10 seconds wouldn’t be cheaper than making you press the button again and running it for another full 60 seconds every single time).  With nothing else to do, you read the metal plate on the dryer, which has the exact same text you’ve read on a hundred other dryers a hundred other times.  Including the patent number.

Eventually, you start to memorize that shit.

Patent no. 2553846.  Other patents pending.  (Haven’t the other ones been processed by now?  It’s been years!)

Shoot me now.

(There’s an additional patent number listed on about 1/8 of the dryers.  That one, I’m happy to say, I don’t have memorized.  And maybe 1/4 of the dryers — all from one manufacturer — don’t list the numbers at all.)

Updated on March 9, 2004

Updated on December 23, 2010

Gay Marriage: Excuses, Excuses

It can be fun listening to conservative talk radio with their coverage of the same-sex civil marriage hoo-hah (or “sodomite matrimony,” if you prefer; that was the term used in late February when Les Kinsolving filled in for Rusty Humphries on his national radio show) that’s been going on the past three weeks.  In and among the more standard “reasons” (excuses) why we can’t allow same-sex civil marriages — morality, tradition, kids, etc. — there are a few which are just way out there.  As best as I can figure, these people have thought about the question just enough to realize that reasons based squarely on religious grounds won’t fly when it comes to the courts, so they flail around for something, anything else to use as a club in place of the Bible.

And what they find is “benefits”.  One of the leading arguments for why same-sex civil marriage is needed is that along with marriage comes a whole slew of government and business supplied benefits.  Not just rights like hospital visitation and adoption, but things like joint filing of tax returns.  Many (but not all) of these can be acquired by filing assorted powers of attorney, wills, and other documents (or by working for gay-supportive companies), but often only at a cost of thousands of dollars and the possibility of having to fight for them when needed, problems that married couples simply don’t face.

Favorite Excuse #1: Gay couples want to ensure health benefits for their spouses, and since gays and lesbians are known health risks, this will be expensive.

Sidestepping the underlying jab that all gay men are presumed to be have (or will automatically get) AIDS, have you ever looked into the costs of having a child?  Not just birthing it, but all the health costs throughout the kid’s life?  Woo whee!  We could save a bundle on health expenses by not subsidizing population expansion.  Like that will happen.

Favorite Excuse #2: Married gay couples will be eligible for Social Security survivor benefits if one of them should die, and that would cause an added drain on our already strapped Social Security program.

If this is such a concern, then maybe we should just put a stake in the ground now and disallow that benefit for all future marriages.  Only ones performed before this date will be eligible.

Updated on March 9, 2004

Updated on April 23, 2004
Favorite Excuse #3: From an April 21st letter to the editor in the Seattle Times, authored by Scott Wall:
Those who are seeking to legalize same-sex marriage are not taking into account all the ramifications.  For example, if a citizen marries a non-citizen, the non-citizen then becomes naturalized.  Do we want all sorts of men marrying and pretending to marry other men in order to sidestep the naturalization process?”
I want the same chance to have someone I love (or even just pretend to love) to sidestep the naturalization process as Mr. Wall gets, to marry (or pretend to marry) any random foreign woman.  What’s good for the gander should be good for the gay goose.  If this citizenship issue is such a major concern, Mr. Wall is surely making the appropriate appeals to get such naturalization policies changed, right?  Right?
Updated on December 22, 2010

Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Eht Tebahpla

You watched Sesame StreetYou know the tune.
Z Y X W V U T…


J I H…

G F E…





Now you know your Z Y X
Won’t you come with me for sex?
(I put that together about a year ago, one Friday night while driving to the local bar.  Took me maybe 5 minutes.)

Gay Marriage: The West Coast

The situations in San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle are quite different, despite the political similarities between the cities.

In San Francisco, we have a city with probably the most significant gay population in the country, and a politically active one, to boot.  During election season, San Francisco candidates come to the leather bar beer bust on Sunday afternoon to address their constituents!  We also have a case where the city’s mayor and the the county executive are one and the same, so the mayor could make the order.  Mayor Newsom is aware that the various DOMA laws are probably unconstitutional, but that the courts won’t hear challenges to them unless the laws are having an impact; that is, until there are same-sex marriages done locally or by other states, the laws don’t do anything but sit and menace.  By pushing gay marriages forward – and in the sort of extreme volume only San Francisco can generate – he forces the question.  In the end, as he has said, this may severely damage his political career.  But he will have eternally made himself a hero for some portions of the populace, and if he succeeds, he’ll have also made his political career.

With Portland, there is no state DOMA law to interfere, and clear prohibitions against discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation.  Further, the state’s marriage laws specify age requirements for males and females engaging in marriage, but do not specify one and only one of each.  This has left the door open for the issuing of same-sex marriage licenses, with only the incentive of San Francisco and Massachusetts needed to kick things off.  (Indeed, the ball started rolling in Oregon before San Francisco started issuing licenses.)  Oregon thus ends up in the same class as Massachusetts, and the actions will probably result in both a trip to the state Supreme Court and an attempt to amend the state Constitution, but with the added kick that this is right now just a single county issuing the licenses, but also the most populous county, which could set off a string of lawsuits against other counties in the state if they don’t follow Multnomah County’s lead.  (Oregon is also peculiar in that its population density is such that Multnomah and Lane counties — Portland and Eugene — rule the roost.  Anti-gay initiatives in that state failed when every county except those two voted for them.  Amending the state Constitution is apt to be equally as difficult.)

In Seattle, we have a nicely liberal populace — heck, Kucinich scored delegates here.  But we also have a DOMA law.  Seattle’s mayor, Greg Nickels, has already passed the marriage buck to the county, and county executive Ron Sims has proven unwilling to take the Newsom route.  This isn’t because Sims isn’t friendly to the gay community, but because he’s very aware of the potential damage to his political career.  See, Sims is running for governor this year, and Washington’s population, while weighted toward the west side of the Cascades, isn’t as imbalanced as Oregon’s: he has to be aware of the more conservative Eastern Washington and what advocating for same-sex civil marriage could do to his support from that part of the state.  (I can’t blame him, frankly.  He’ll be of more value to our community as governor for the next four years than if he pushes on this issue and loses because of it.  I’d like to get supportive wording from him in the process, though.)

Oregon has one more interesting side angle to it: they have a state income tax.  The IRS has apparently declared that they will not recognize same-sex civil marriages for purposes of couples filing jointly, presumably under the federal DOMA law.  If Oregon accepts such marriages and state income tax filings, there is then a basis to issue a court challenge to the federal DOMA law.

Updated on March 9, 2004
Since writing this, I’ve been told that the IRS says they will recognize based on what each state does.
Updated on December 20, 2010
Newsom’s order to do same-sex marriages in San Francisco was blocked by the state Supreme Court shortly after this was originally written, and his “Whether you like it or not” comment on the inevitability of same-sex marriage was used in pro-Proposition 8 campaign materials to help the amendment win.  On the flip side for his political career, he was elected Lieutenant Governor of California in November 2010.

A DOMA law was approved for Oregon in November, 2004.  In 2008, statewide domestic partner registration went into effect.

An attempt was made to overturn Washinton’s DOMA law through the courts, but the state Supreme Court rejected it (on the specious “marriage is for procreation” grounds being used to defend Proposition 8), saying that the people or the legislature need to do the overturn.  The state legislature has subsequently passed numerous domestic partner rights changes, to the point that Washington now has “everything but the word marriage”.