Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

January 30, 2006  



Unlinking sex from domestic partner benefits programs

by Thomas F. Coleman

Officials at the University of Florida have just made a major flip-flop on a proposed rule requiring that domestic partners must have an ongoing sexual relationship with each other in order to qualify for benefits. 

After the University Board of Trustees voted last month to offer benefits to domestic partners of University employees, some bureaucrats started to worry that perhaps two long-term roommates might attempt to enroll in the new benefits program.  It wasn't enough for them to require proof of financial interdependency, such as both adults having their name on the same lease and a joint bank account. 

The bureaucrats wanted a clear cut method to differentiate between "real" domestic partners and long term roommates.  So they decided to require applicants to declare under oath that they had a "non-platonic relationship."  In other words, the parties would be required to swear they were having sex with each other.

That bureaucratic trial balloon has just had a crash landing.  After some employees protested the proposed rule, and wondered how it would be enforced, the University's Vice President for Human Resources reconsidered the "non-platonic relationship" requirement.

Sex will no longer play a role in deciding who qualifies for domestic partner benefits at the University of Florida.  One wonders how the sexual relationship requirement got the okay of University lawyers in the first place since the Florida Constitution specifically guarantees the right of privacy to all state residents.

The flip-flop in Florida is symptomatic of an ongoing debate over who should be included and who should be excluded from domestic partner benefits.  Only gay couples?  Gay and straight couples?  Any two adults, including blood relatives? 

For many years there has been an implied assumption that domestic partners are lovers and that domestic partner benefits are intended for unmarried couples in a romantic relationship.

The assumption arises from the fine print in domestic partner benefits programs and laws.  Close blood relatives -- those who would be barred from marrying each other -- have generally been excluded from registering as domestic partners.

Society has always presumed that a marital relationship has a sexual dimension.  Since incest is illegal in our society, and since genetic defects often occur when children are born from incestuous relations, it is logical that the law would prohibit close blood relatives from marrying each other.

A domestic partnership, however, is a relatively new concept.  The requisite criteria for two people to be considered domestic partners is still in an evolutionary stage of development. 

The first wave of domestic partner programs and laws excluded blood relatives, but allowed all other unmarried adults to participate regardless of whether they were same-sex or opposite-sex couples.  This first wave started in 1984 and lasted about 10 years.

Then the push to legalize gay marriage moved to the forefront and many advocates for reform wanted domestic partnership rights to be limited to gay and lesbian couples.  The theory was that since same-sex couples could not marry, domestic partnership should mirror marriage as much as possible and be limited to gay relationships.  These gay marriage advocates argued that since close blood relatives are not allowed to marry, they should not be allowed to become domestic partners either. 

So during the next wave of political and economic reform, post 1994, almost all newly instituted "domestic partnership" benefits programs excluded blood relatives, and many of them excluded opposite-sex couples as well.  Domestic partnership was turning into "marriage lite" for gays and lesbians.

But as time went on, and more large and medium size employers were offering domestic partner benefits to their workers, corporate executives began to question the wisdom of excluding unmarried heterosexual couples.  Many were uncomfortable with the idea of limiting such benefits to adults in homosexual relationships. 

At last count, there were more than 8,000 employers with domestic partner benefits plans in the United States.  Most of them now allow same-sex and opposite-sex couples to sign up.  But the overwhelming majority continue to exclude blood relatives.

Why should employers or government agencies require, or assume, that domestic partnership relationships are sexual in nature?  Why shouldn't domestic partnerships be based on a "family" model rather than on a "sexual" model?

If University officials in Florida finally got it right -- as I believe they have -- and domestic partner benefits should not hinge on whether two people have a sexual relationship or not, then it would be logical and fair to allow any two adults who are living together as a family unit to register as domestic partners and gain the benefits.  There is really no good reason to exclude blood relatives from domestic partner benefits plans and governmental protections.

Republicans are always talking about "family values" and Democrats are constantly concerned about "working families."  Prohibiting unmarried blood relatives from employer-based or government-sponsored domestic partner benefits programs should offend members of both major political parties.

Two unmarried adults who are living together on a long-term basis and are financially interdependent should be allowed to register as domestic partners regardless of whether they are gay, straight, or blood relatives.  Sex should be irrelevant.

Unmarried America 2006

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.