“This may look like discrimination, but it isn’t…” – Reflections By Dr. Mark Williams

Mark WilliamsDr. Mark Williams is in his second year as an assistant professor of social work at a large, public university in the Midwest. His research examines social factors that influence the health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans* (LGBT) older adults. Also, he teaches courses on social work practice in healthcare and social gerontology.

Below, Dr. Williams shares one (frustrating) aspect of his experiences a gay man in academia: navigating university and state domestic partnership policies.

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“This May Look Like Discrimination, But It Isn’t…”

Just a little over a year ago, I sat in a Human Resources orientation for new employees as I prepared to start my first faculty position after completing my doctorate and moving across the country to take this job.  The Human Resources employee explained that those of us who choose to access domestic partner health benefits would have our incomes “imputed,” and that the university would intentionally over-report our income in order to ensure that we would be fully taxed for the portion of our partners’ health insurance that the university would pay for. I must have looked skeptical. Or confused. Probably both. Because the presenter quickly added, “This may look like discrimination, but it isn’t, because everyone who gets domestic partner health benefits is treated the same.”

I went from skeptical and confused to insulted and angry in a heartbeat. That excuse might… MIGHT… explain why I should not take the accounting gymnastics and tax penalty for having a same-sex partner personally, but it most definitely did not explain how this procedure failed to qualify as discrimination.  I stewed, rather than confronted, for a couple of primary reasons. The first reason was that the Human Resources employee assuring us that this was not discrimination was a black woman, and the complicated powers and privileges involved in me, a white man, publicly arguing with a black woman about the definition of discrimination seemed way too messed up to me. I also chose not to confront because I didn’t want to already be rocking the boat three days before my contract actually started with my new employer.

When we actually applied for my partner’s health benefits under my coverage, we learned that according to the bureaucratic system in place to process these claims, we were not domestic partners until our signed affidavit was officially filed with a benefits claims office halfway across the state. Until that time, I was advised to file for my health insurance as a “single” employee.  After more than 10 years together, with domestic partnerships legally registered in two states (including the state where my university is located!), we were told that our domestic partnership would “start” when a filing clerk received the proper paperwork.  When I pointed out to our local Human Resources office and the central office responsible for filing the paperwork that they did not, in fact, have the power or authority to determine that my partner and I are not already legally recognized domestic partners, my comments were mostly ignored. The paperwork was eventually processed. Slowly. My partner finally received the health insurance coverage that I was assured would be “no problem” when I negotiated my employment contract.

I don’t know how the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA may impact the large tax penalty assessed to those of us whose employers provide same-sex partner health benefits. I don’t know whether our upcoming state Supreme Court hearing to consider throwing out our nominal domestic partnership registry as in violation of our state DOMA amendment will change my family’s access to civic and social goods we were promised when we moved here to take this job.

I do know, however, that this is all steeped in open-faced bigotry and insidious systems of institutional discrimination, and straight people telling me that it isn’t so does not change that reality.  I understand that my family has been assessed a tax penalty that my married opposite-sex colleagues do not pay. I do not like it, but I understand it.

But arguing that it isn’t a direct expression of discrimination, or that the definition of my family depends on a benefits compliance employee filing a piece of employment paperwork, is nothing other than personally insulting.

3 thoughts on ““This may look like discrimination, but it isn’t…” – Reflections By Dr. Mark Williams

  1. My wife and I were married in June after being listed as domestic partners at my University (Ohio with an anti same gender amendment). Nothing changed with how my wife’s benefits were dealt with (much the same as what you described) until the IRS provided guidance to treat those married in states with legal same gender marriage the same as other married couples regardless of their state of residence. So my wife’s benefits are now treated as any other legal spouse. In that aspect, the DOMA ruling seems to be helping.

    I do agree with you regarding how they worded it was very problematic.

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  2. Congratulations, Emilia! The news about IRS’s guidance to your university sounds encouraging. We struggled with the IRS a bit when we lived in a community property state as legal domestic partners. One office in the IRS issued a memo instructing those in our situation that we must claim half of our partner’s income as our own. When we filed this way, another branch of the IRS flagged our returns as faulty and opened an investigation into whether we filed illegally. Fortunately, the whole thing was sorted out (our “community property” filing was deemed accurate), but my confidence in the IRS speaking with one, well-considered voice is a bit jaded. Hopefully the DOMA ruling is high profile enough to get all of their ducks in a row on this now.

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  3. All my empathies on this one, Mark. I hate this “oh, we’re not discriminating, because the policy impacts male/female domestic partners just as negatively!” argument.

    I have been fighting against this unequal treatment for a couple of years, with no changes in how our university or state system handle same-sex couples. One argument I’ve been making is that this violates “full faith and credit clause,” because when a new employee comes to the university from another state and says they have a heterosexual spouse, the university HR system doesn’t ask for any proof whatsoever and just grants the spouse benefits, but when an employee comes in who has been married or legally partnered to a person of the same sex, their marriage or DP certificate is given no credence. Instead, like you and your partner, they have to file an affidavit regarding shared residence and finances that has to go through a verification process.

    My second argument has been that since the university has a policy protecting people from unequal treatment based on sexual orientation, they should do what many corporate employers do and “gross up” the wages of employees with DP benefits so that take-home pay is not reduced.

    (There are separate HR policies that negatively impact trans gender employees that I’ve been fighting as well–one that requires a change of sex on the birth certificate before a person’s gender marker can be changed on health insurance–something impossible for many people, and another in that all the health insurers contracted with by the university exclude any coverage of medical transition services.)

    I’ve gotten a lot of, “Oh, that would be nice,” and no action, sadly.

    Anyway, you have my full sympathy.

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