domestic partnerships

The Rise and Fall of Domestic Partnerships

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Katie Byron

I'm a twentysomething queer feminist cat lady. I generally can't even and I'm only rarely sorry.

Last year, the Supreme Court brought us the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, making marriage equality a reality across the US. This was a landmark ruling for same-sex couples seeking the benefits that come from legally-recognized marriage. For many couples, Obergefell opened up a new option to create the kind of family they want to make, but marriage equality may complicate the options we have to form the families we choose. Prior to the Obergefell ruling, same-sex couples could have their relationships recognized through domestic partnerships and civil unions. Civil unions offer the rights and benefits that come from a legal marriage, just under a different name. Domestic partnerships are somewhat more vague, but offer many or all of the benefits of marriage. These options served as a makeshift solution for same-sex couples who could not get married. Now that marriage is legal across the US, the future of these options is unclear.

A few weeks ago I saw a Facebook post from an acquaintance complaining that her employer was going to stop providing domestic partner benefits. As a result, she and her partner would have to get married to keep their benefits. They had made a deliberate choice not to get married and now would have to reconsider whether their principles were as important as the benefits they were receiving. As I did some more research, I found out that her situation was not unique. One report found that 70% of companies offering domestic partner benefits at the time of the Obergefell ruling were planning to discontinue their programs in 2017. Employees covered by these programs will need to get married or lose their benefits. Depending on the state, some might not even have that choice. New Hampshire converted all of its civil unions to marriages once same-sex marriage was legalized. When Washington State legalized same-sex marriage, new legislation converted many domestic partnerships into marriages. To understand the impact of phasing out domestic partnerships and their related benefits, we need to look at where they came from and how they developed in the public and private sectors.

While partners have shared domestic life without legal recognition forever, the conversation around legal recognition of these relationships in the US really picked up in the ‘80s. The AIDS epidemic brought attention to the need for same-sex partners to gain access to critical healthcare services and to receive bereavement benefits when their partners died. In 1984, Berkeley became the first US city to extend same-sex domestic partner benefits to city employees and the following year, West Hollywood began a domestic partner registry open to all citizens. In 1989, New York City began offering benefits to same-sex partners after a lawsuit from a man who was evicted from his home after his partner died of AIDS.

Domestic partnerships were designed to benefit same-sex couples and some states restricted them to same-sex couples. In other states, however, they were open to anyone to enter and many of the users were unmarried heterosexual couples. In 1998, 55% of domestic partnerships in New York City were heterosexual couples. After September 11th, anecdotes describe friends entering domestic partnerships so they would have a local next-of-kin in the event of another terrorist attack. Domestic partnerships opened up new ways for families to be acknowledged without the requirement of marriage.

The private sector also developed new ways to acknowledge different family structures. In the 90s, companies began offering benefits to same-sex domestic partners as a recruitment and retention strategy to attract queer employees. Some of these companies expanded access to heterosexual couples in domestic partnerships as well. While these benefits only represent a small fraction of the benefits that companies provide to employees, as same-sex marriage became legal, large companies began cutting these benefits as a cost-saving strategy.

We still need systems that recognize the variety of ways in which people make families. Requiring marriage for legal recognition leaves out many partners from receiving benefits and protections from the state. Acknowledging families that don’t formalize their relationship provides greater protections for families whose lives fall outside the norm. This would provide greater benefits for polyamorous partners, who still face legal hurdles because the state does not recognize their relationships. The majority opinion of the 1989 New York domestic partnership court case reads, “We conclude that the term family . . . should not be rigidly restricted to those people who have formalized their relationship by obtaining, for instance, a marriage certificate or an adoption order.” We fought to expand marriage to include same-sex couples, and now it’s time to fight to keep family as something bigger than marriage.