As Americans debate the pros and cons of same-sex marriage after President Obama voiced his support for it last week, the LGBT community is still fighting for many civil liberties that heterosexual married couples take for granted.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, 1,138 benefits, rights, and protections are provided on the basis of marital status in federal law, and on the state level numerous restrictions cover adoption, hospital visits, and countless other issues depending on whether a person is married or single.
“A lot of families obtain their health insurance coverage, retirement benefits, and a lot of important protections for their family through one of the partners’ or spouses’ employers, but for a lot of same-sex couples that is not available at all or it is much more financially burdensome,” said Brian Moulton, legal director at the Human Rights Campaign.
Currently, the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the federal government from recognizing the marriages of same-sex couples, even in states where such unions are lawful. According to Moulton, the lack of benefits and recognition on the federal level can lead to same-sex couples facing an annual federal tax burden that is $1,000 higher than what heterosexual married couples pay.
Because of DOMA, “the same-sex spouses of federal employees don’t have access to health insurance or workers’ compensation benefits, equal retirement benefits,” Moulton said. “And now for [gay] soldiers who serve openly in the military, their same-sex spouses don’t have access to a whole host of benefits.”
Although overturning DOMA is an extremely important issue on the federal level, gay-rights advocates must overcome numerous hurdles in many states before same-sex marriage would even be a legitimate possibility.
Colorado, for example, enacted a constitutional amendment in 1996 banning same-sex marriage, but it allows hospital visits for same-sex couples and single-parent adoption. Eighteen states plus the District of Columbia permit single-parent and same-sex couple adoption, and three states—Michigan, Mississippi, and Utah—ban adoption by same-sex couples.
Due to the difficulties of changing a constitutional amendment, many Coloradans view civil unions as the “path of least resistance” before they can pursue marriage equality, according to Dani Perea, communications and marketing manager for The Center, a nonprofit community center in Denver that provides support and advocacy for Colorado’s LGBT population.
“Some people wonder, ‘Why not marriage? Why aren’t we going for full equality?’ ” Perea said. “And some of our older LGBT families are like, ‘We can’t wait for marriage…. If we can get civil unions right now, that’s good enough for right now.’ ”
Last week, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, called for a special legislative session to consider civil unions so that same-sex couples could “take care of each other and their families.”
The state’s Legislature rejected civil-union legislation when it was in session earlier this year.
Elsewhere around the country, many of the states that ban same-sex marriage do provide other protections for gays and lesbians, including laws banning discrimination or violence against people based on gender identity or sexual orientation.
This article appears in the May 14, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.