Monday, May 25, 2009

Same-sex and different-sex domestic partners of foreign service personnel to receive benefits

The Advocate has printed the draft of a letter by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton detailing the extension of benefits to the domestic partners of foreign service personnel assigned abroad. In describing the letter, the Advocate article begins by saying it "details her intentions to extend certain benefits to same-sex partners of foreign service officers posted abroad."

This characterization of Clinton's letter is true, but it is also incomplete. The benefits will be extended to both same-sex AND different-sex domestic partners. Clinton's letter says, "At bottom, the Department will provide these benefits for both opposite-sex and same-sex domestic partners because it is the right thing to do." The Advocate article gets to this at the end of its fourth paragraph.

While granting benefits to same-sex partners is huge, granting them to different-sex partners is monumental. The original concept of domestic partnership, dating to the early 1980's, was that marriage should not be a prerequisite for various legal consequences. The first domestic partner employee policies covered both gay and straight couples.

Over time, the right wing started blaming all social problems on the decline of life-long heterosexual marriage, and "marriage promotion" became a staple of public policy. And the gay rights movement made achieving access to marriage a priority. In this context, many employers chose to provide domestic partner benefits only to same-sex couples. Since different-sex couples could marry, they had to marry to obtain the benefits. By this thinking, domestic partner benefits existed solely to compensate gay employees for the inability to marry. With such a rationale, no wonder several Massachusetts employers stopped offering domestic partner benefits once same-sex couples there could marry.

In an earlier post on Senate hearings on extending same-sex domestic partner benefits to all federal employees, I noted that Maine Senator Susan Collins spoke favorably about covering both different-sex and same-sex couples. I hope that Clinton's decision gives a needed push to this more inclusive approach.

Same-sex marriage proponents often say they want couples to have the choice to marry. But it's no choice if it's the only path to protecting the economic security of an employee's family. Thank you, Secretary Clinton, for really getting it.

Next I'll be looking at these important details when the policy is released: how is domestic partner defined, and when can an employee obtain benefits for children who are the legal children only of the partner? Stay tuned.

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