In the beginning of 1997 the government of San Francisco initiated a new policy: henceforth, all organizations which have any contractual relationship with the city must offer the same benefits to ‘domestic partners’ as they do to spouses. For the uninitiated, a ‘domestic partner’ is someone with whom you have a long-term, committed, live-in (but not legally-binding) relationship; in San Francisco this typically (but not necessarily) means a gay relationship for which a formal marriage is simply not available.
The policy is a noble attempt to reward loving, committed, stable relationships, whether or not they fit the traditional mold. It is also an act of hubris, perhaps even rising to the level of cultural imperialism: the law seeks to extend this policy beyond San Francisco to wherever any city contractor operates, from San Mateo, CA, to Atlanta, GA, to every major airport in the world (United Airlines, which has a major hub in San Francisco, is thereby considered to have a city contract, and was notified it must comply across the board), and even to the Vatican (the catholic church, which ducked the issue by offering benefits to “any member of an employee’s household”, operates much of the city’s social safety net). Imagine the citizens of Little Rock or Des Moines trying to enforce a ban on benefits for domestic partners in San Francisco…
This essay was submitted to the San Francisco Chronicle as an article for their Open Forum series. It was not published.
11 February 1997
The civic institution of marriage is more than a public proclamation of personal commitment between two people. It is also a public proclamation of legal commitment by the governing civic authority. In marrying, two people pledge to support each other through whatever may come; by sponsoring the marriage, the state pledges to enforce that support, at least in its legal and financial aspects. Thus are spouses legally as well as spiritually bound.
It was this legal bond, as much as any other factor, which undergirded the social climate in which provision of benefits to spouses became not just another incentive plan but a fundamental expectation of employment contracts. Today, companies provide such benefits as much out of a sense of civic responsibility, bordering on moral imperative, as out of any practical use as a bargaining position, largely because spousal benefits are, fundamentally, an extension of compensation to those to whom employees already have a legally-enforceable financial obligation. The legal bond between employee and beneficiary makes the process simple, unambiguous, and free of controversy and abuse.
What, then, of domestic partners? The city of San Francisco wishes to impose its vision of fairness on all America through its corporate servants, to spread the benefit of spousal privilege to anyone who is willing to make a public commitment of mutual support. This may be noble, and perhaps in San Francisco such commitments will be blessed and enforced by the civic authority with legal, not just personal, obligation. But what of Butte, or Green Bay, or Atlanta, or Anytown USA? Can the same San Francisco liberals who fear and demonize corporate power in all its other manifestations really expect — really demand — that corporations enforce the legal bonds of marriage where governments refuse to do so?
It seems to me the reasonable position would be for the San Francisco supervisors to limit their scope: require from city contractors extension of spousal benefits to domestic partners only within any jurisdiction in which the civic authority has made the same commitment, the commitment to enforce such arrangements with legal sanction. Call it a marriage, or not, as your taste and moral compass dictate, but recognize it as a purely civic enterprise. By all means, require business to accommodate the local civic compact, but do not require them, or even allow them, to dictate it.
© Copyright 1997, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell