Note: This article was published
in independent lesbian and gay newspapers across the United States in 1984.
Achtenberg represents Boyce Hinman,
an employee of the state of California, who has
been denied dental insurance benefits for his lover of twelve years. Hinman is supported
in his suit by the California State Employees Union.
Supervisor Harry Britt introduced legislation in the city of San Francisco in 1982 to provide domestic partners benefits to city employees. When the Board of Supervisors
passed the legislation, it was vetoed by Mayor Dianne Feinstein who was under considerable pressure from some religious leaders in the city. Britt said recently, "The real issue was maintaining the privileged status of the non-gay family in our culture. We are part of the mainstream. We don't want a separate set of rules for us. We don't want to sit in the back of the bus... We want every human relationship to be dealt with with justice and with parity. The domestic partner issue is not about glorifying gay relationships. It is about removing the homophobic obstacles to equity in the law in dealing with human relationships."
Another plaintiff in a current lawsuit is Larry Brinkin, an employee of the Southern Pacific Company. Brinkin is a member of the Railway Clerks' Union whose contract with Southern Pacific provides employees three days of paid funeral leave upon death of a spouse. When Brinkin's lover of eleven years died, he was denied the three days' pay. In contrast to Hinman's case, Brinkin's union refused to back him in his demands. He is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and attorney Matthew Coles.
Coles was the author of the San Francisco domestic partners legislation introduced by Britt. He sees the main problem around insurance benefits to be that "no insurance company is going to write a package policy unless there is something in writing to
memorialize the [domestic partner] relationship. Affidavits or registrations are a problem for those who would protect the privileged status of heterosexual marriage."
There are other cases. An employee of Frontier Airlines is suing to obtain for his lover travel benefits similar to those provided to spouses of the airline's employees. An activist on the faculty at the University of California in Berkeley is pursuing a complaint that denial of spousal benefits to his lover constitutes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in violation of the stated policies of the University.
The domestic partners issue is not limited to unresolved lawsuits and fantasies for the future. Such benefits are being provided now by a number of employers and organizations. The first to implement such a plan was Workers' Trust, Inc. in Eugene, Oregon, a cooperative health plan which serves employees of a number of small employers. Since May, 1982 the Workers' Trust definition of dependent for purposes of insurance coverage has included "a named partner who resides permanently with the person through whom the insurance is received." No "proof" or affidavits have been required. Both gays and non-gays are participating and the benefit has not been abused. This insurance is underwritten by Consumers United Insurance Company in Washington, D.C. Since Workers' Trust is a group insurance trust, however, it is the trust and not the insurance company that bears the risks.
Shortly after, The Village Voice, a weekly New York City tabloid and part of the
publishing empire of Rupert Murdoch, became the second organization known to have made provision for domestic partners. Jeff Weinstein, an employee of the paper and shop
steward for the publishing local of District 65 UAW, negotiated and won agreement in the union contract to extend health, life insurance, and disability benefits to the "spouse equivalents" of its union members. A spouse equivalent is defined as a lover or mate of whatever sex who shares a household with the employee. According to the agreement, spouse equivalents of members at the time the benefit was instituted had to sign an affidavit to be eligible for immediate coverage. New employees need to register their spouse equivalents for one year before the coverage takes effect. The Voice benefits are union administered and the union is self-insured. The employer pays the cost of these benefits.
Weinstein told me recently that sixteen employees at The Voice (out of a total of 140) are taking advantage of benefits for spouse equivalents. Of the sixteen half are gay and half are non-gay. The plan has been in effect since July, 1982. "There have been no problems," said Weinstein. "The company is proud of it; the union is proud of it; everybody at The Voice wanted this."
Another organization, the American Psychological Association, was moved to action
by its Committee on Gay Concerns. Using The Village Voice contract as a model, the APA
Insurance Trust is now offering spouse equivalent insurance coverage to its members on
an experimental basis for a three year period. Effective October, 1983 members could
register spouse equivalents for insurance to start one year after registration. Margaret A. Bogie, Trust Administrator, said, "While I suspect that spouse equivalents will not be different from our group as far as claims experience is concerned, they must be closely monitored because we have no information on the risk we have undertaken." While not explicitly mentioning AIDS, Ms. Bogie did observe that "there has been considerable concern in recent years on the issues of gay health..."
Despite the fact that, as with Workers' Trust, the APA's Insurance Trust bears all the risk, "Liberty Mutual, our insurance carrier, was not thrilled with the idea of spouse equivalent coverage. The insurance carrier did not oppose this idea at any juncture, but there were misgivings that are typical of the conservative nature of insurance itself." According to Stephen Young of Liberty Mutual, twelve members of the APA have signed up for spousal equivalent coverage, including eight gay and four nongay couples.
It is not coincidental that these few pioneers of domestic partners benefits are a
membership organization, a cooperative, and a newspaper known for its progressive
views. Mainstream corporations have yet to dip their toes in this pool. But some
airlines provide "buddy passes" for employees without restricting use to a spouse or
blood relative. I've even heard that IBM has been known to pay relocation expenses for
same sex lovers of transferred employees.
While some employers will be more conservative and avoid this issue, others can be
expected to take a pragmatic and enlightened approach. Fringe benefits are partly
designed to retain desired employees, to reduce turnover, to avoid losses of productivity, and to promote employee loyalty. Those employers who are unwilling to deal with the reality of the lives of the ten per cent of their employees who are gay, ultimately are the losers in terms of their own goals.
I was told the story of a star salesperson who won an incentive award from her
employer, a trip to Hawaii for employee and spouse. Her female lover of many years did
not qualify, so she took the trip alone feeling frustrated and bitter. Surely the effect was exactly the opposite of that which the corporation sought.
Very, very few corporate employees are out of the closet. There has been little
motivation for them to emerge. It might just be that domestic partners benefits would be the key to those closet doors. One could only reap such benefits by declaring one's domestic arrangements. For the individual, not only would more equitable economic
treatment result, but the act of putting aside the lies of the closet would also significantly enhance emotional health and wellbeing. Who would not respond positively to the employer from whom such benefits derived?
It is interesting to note that in those cases where domestic partners benefits have
been established, there is ample participation by nongay unmarried couples. Activists
must seek to enlist the cooperation of all those who stand to benefit, gay and
nongay, in order to obtain fair treatment by employers.