The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Nonfamily Families

Sorry for the lack of posts here. Yesterday was pretty busy at work, and by the time I got home and spent time with my family (instead of on the computer) and put the kid to bed, I didn’t have the energy for it. Plus, I think I’ve been experiencing low-grade burnout, among other things lately. I’m realizing that this blog has been a “one man shop” from the beginning, and I’m starting to envy those who are part of established group blogs

That said, there are still plenty of thing that get me back to blogging. Like this item I saw posted by Michael at Gay Orbit. In the QueerlyKos round-up, I mentioned the passing of Gerry Studd, the first openly gay member of congress. Well, it turns out that Studds’ husband can’t inherit his pension.

Gerry Studds, the nation’s first openly gay congressman, pushed the country to another landmark development when he died Saturday: the federal government for the first time will deny death benefits to a congressman’s gay spouse.

The federal government does not recognize the 2004 Massachusetts’ marriage between Studds and Dean Hara, and won’t provide a portion of Studds’ $114,337 annual pension to his surviving spouse.

The federal law, defined by the Defense of Marriage Act, not only trumps the Bay State’s gay marriage law but reveals its limitations.

“A gay spouse will not receive any sort of pension or annuity or anything like that,” said Chad Cowan, a spokesman for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which administers the congressional pension program under federal law.

“It’s not anything that anybody in our office has seen before,” he added.

Wives and husbands of deceased lawmakers have for years found financial comfort in their ability to collect more than half of the generous

But if you’re not a legal spouse? Well, tough titty. That Hara and Studds were together for 15 years doesn’t matter either. (But a heterosexual spouse married for 15 minutes would conceivably be eligible.) That’s because we are essentially what’s now being called (for the first time that I know of) nonfamily households.

It is by no means dead, but for the first time, a new survey has shown that traditional marriage has ceased to be the preferred living arrangement in the majority of US households.

The shift, reported by the US Census Bureau in its 2005 American Community Survey, could herald a sea change in every facet of American life — from family law to national politics and its current emphasis on family values.

The findings, which were released in August but largely escaped public attention until now because of the large volume of data, indicated that marriage did not figure in nearly 55.8 million American family households, or 50.2 percent.

More than 14 million of them were headed by single women, another five million by single men, while 36.7 million belonged to a category described as “nonfamily households,” a term that experts said referred primarily to gay or heterosexual couples cohabiting out of formal wedlock.

And if you’re not family, not next of kin, you don’t count for much and you don’t have many rights at a time like this, when you’ve lost a member of your “non-family.” Maybe it’s just a matter of not knowing what to call families who don’t fit the traditional mold. The QueerlyKos round-up also mentioned the brouhaha Condoleeza Rice called when she acknowledged AIDS czar Jeff Dybul’s partner and “mother-in-law” at his swearing in. Technically Dybul’s partner’s mother can’t be his mother in law, because Dybul and his partner can’t have a legally recognized relationship that would make them anything in law but two separate people sharing a roof, etc.

In other words, a “nonfamily.” In the legal sense, at least, though heterosexual “nonfamilies” pretty much always have the option to marry receive the benefits and protections afforded based on marital status. In other words, they’re only missing a piece of paper that they could easily obtain if they so choose. (And it will be argued that “gays can get married, if they just marry a member of the opposite sex”; which essentially means they have to significantly alter the make-up of their families. Something heterosexuals don’t have to do.)

But that brings up the question of what exactly makes a family? Is it legally little more than a marriage certificate? What the article doesn’t mention is what roles the couples labeled “nonfamily” play in one another’s lives. It’s likely they do the same things that married couples do, from supporting one another financially to taking care of each other through illness, even raising children together and caring for one another in old age; all things that could be included in a conservative case for same-sex marriage.

The argument about caregiving is also a very conservative one. As [Jonathan] Rauch points out, “from society’s point of view, an unattached person is an accident waiting to happen. The burdens of contingency are likely to fall, immediately and sometimes crushingly, on people – relatives, friends, neighbours – who have enough problems of their own, and then on charities and welfare agencies. We all suffer periods of illness, sadness, distress, fury. What happens to us, and what happens to the people around us, when we desperately need a hand but find none to hold? If marriage has any meaning at all, it is that when you collapse from a stroke, there will be another person whose ‘job’ it is to drop everything and come to your aid. Or that when you come home after being fired, there will be someone to talk you out of committing a massacre or killing yourself. To be married is to know there is someone out there for whom you are always first in line”. Denying this option to gay couples places this burden of care on the state – how is this good conservative policy?

But that’s a rational response to an irrational mindset which lumps us into the “nonfamily” category as unworthy of the rights and protections granted to “real” families even though we do most or all of the same things those families do, with the same benefits to society noted above. In that sense, aren’t those “nonfamily” households simply families without that piece of paper that conveys government sanction, and the rights and protections that go with it? Aren’t they, we, essentially “nonfamily families,” carrying out most or all of the same functions, providing most or all of the same benefits to society, but without most or any of the rights and protections afforded “real” families?

It’s hard resist ranting about the inherent homophobia and heterosexism in the term “nonfamily,” or to ignore the inevitable harm that it does, because when you don’t see people as families, you don’t treat them as families. I noted several actual cases when I posted asking what rights same-sex couples should have. And there seemed to be significant support for pension inheritance when I posted again asking what rights same-sex couples should not have. (How many “nonfamily households” — including same-sex “nonfamilies” — would benefit from the “reciprocal beneficiaries” status discussed in that post?)

What’s ironic is that, as with the “nonfamily” households mentioned above, Studds and his partner are effectively penalized by the law because of their long term relationship, while the same law benefits some less-than-ethical married heterosexuals. And before you bring up Studds’ history, consider who will be eligible for a pension.

The pension benefits are automatic for lawmakers caught misbehaving — a contrast noted by the National Taxpayers Union, which has sought unsuccessfully to strip lawmakers of financial benefits when they are convicted of a felony.

U.S. Rep. Bob Ney, the Ohio Republican who pled guilty Friday to conspiracy charges and faces up to 10 years in prison for taking bribes from lobbyist Jack Abramoff, will receive about $29,000 a year from his pension for the rest of his life.

“He will receive a pension while in prison,” said NTU spokesman Sam Batkins.

The article doesn’t say what will happen to the remainder of Studds’ pension. My guess is that it will go back into the fund that supplies congressional pensions. So if Ney, for example, gets a pension (in prison) it’ll be subsidized by Studds’ pension; the one his surviving partner didn’t get. And Ney’s pension will go to his spouse if he predeceases her. Again subsidized by the pension that Studds’ partner won’t inherit.

That leads me to ask to what degree that’s true of the rest of the “nonfamily” households out there. To what degree are we subsidizing “state sanctioned families” with pensions and social security that can’t be inherited, taxes paid because we can’t file jointly if it benefits us, health insurance paid for because we can’t get partner/spousal coverage, etc. with what’s sometimes bitterly referred to as “the gay tax,” because what we can’t pass on to or inherit from our partners simply goes back into the system.

And to the degree that “nonfamily families” are subsidizing “state sanctioned families,” why should we?


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  3. Studds’ pension largely comes from the General Fund.
    Studds paid in 1.8 percent, the other 99.2 percent comes from the General Fund.
    As a single man, he probably chose an individual plan.
    He could have purchased an insurable interest annuity for a close relative or for a partner, but it’s apparent that he didn’t do that.