They wore matching timepieces instead of rings. For Nicholas Shower and David Kruger, a college couple at the University of Iowa, a proposal of marriage had never crossed their minds. They had only been dating for five months but when Kruger’s father posed the idea, the decision seemed logical.
Their courtship was the “classic boy meets boy at a gay bar,” Shower said. That summer, Kruger proposed. “In order to have things finalized by the next academic year we rushed it so he [Kruger] could apply as a resident.”
The marriage qualified Kruger, a Minnesota native, for in-state tuition and saved him about $40,000. “On that side, we benefited from it,” Shower said. “People marry for a lot more reasons than just love nowadays.”
The couple wed in 2010, but began to encounter problems when they went to file for financial aid.
“They ask you questions like, ‘Are you married?’” Kruger said. “I answered, ‘yes,’ because I was but my school informed me I had to change it back to being single because gay marriage isn’t recognized. I thought there was some crotchety, old lady who was saying things like, ‘you’re not married—you’re gay!’”
There was one year, however, where Kruger slipped through the cracks of the federal government. He got to experience what it was like to be a straight student.
“I got subsidized loans and Pell Grants. The next year I was trying to get more money. When I applied for a need-based scholarship they needed Nick’s tax returns. When I gave them his tax returns that’s when it must have dawned on them that his name was Nick — not Nicole.”
Kruger lost $7,000.
Since FAFSA is a federal program, the university must follow federal guidelines, no matter what the state constitution says. Iowa legalized same-sex marriage in 2009.
Sitting in their sunlit dining room, 26-year-old Shower shook his said and said, “It’s such a hard thing. What do you say? No one could help us. They sympathized with us, but it’s the federal government. I felt like I wanted to do something like stage a sit in so people would know this is messed up.”
While same-sex couples may marry in nine states, the federal government still does not recognize same-sex couples as married, no matter where they live. Therefore, same-sex couples pay more in taxes and receive fewer benefits than do married opposite-sex couples.
Quite literally, there is a price to pay for being gay.
Here’s the breakdown.
Of the nine states that recognize full marriage equality, three—Maine, Maryland and Washington—were added to the list this year but have not yet begun to issue marriage licenses. Six of those nine plus the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage.
As for the remaining 41 states, seven have broad relationship recognition laws and three have limited recognition laws, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. The broad relationship law “extends to same-sex couples all or nearly all the rights and responsibilities extended to married couples under state law,” taking the title civil union or domestic partnership.
A domestic partnership (DP) is the lowest level of relationship recognition, says EqualityMaine, an organization formed to educate lesbian and gay issues. Couples, gay or straight, who declare DPs are expected to be in a committed relationship, live together, and be financially interdependent. However, DPs also have minimal benefits and protections when it comes to financial, legal and social challenges.
While many employers attempt to extend health insurance benefits to those in DPs, many do not. Moreover joint health insurance benefits offered to same-sex couples are taxed as income. Different-sex couples experience no tax. Gay couples can then expect to pay “an average of $1,070 per year more in taxes than married employees with the same coverage,” Naomi Goldberg and M.V. Lee Badgett write for the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The overall cost to American families forced to pay this add-on tax is $235 million. There’s even a manual—The Domestic Partnership Organizing Manual for Employee Benefits—to help those in DPs convince their employers to offer equal health care benefits.
A civil union is different from a DP; it offers a wider range of protections and benefits. However, they may not be recognized outside the state in which they are performed. So, should Jane Doe face an emergency in Nebraska, partner Karen will not be able to make medical decisions on her behalf.
What does this mean for Jane? She should have made it to Iowa before the accident.
In fact, this scenario happens all the time. It happened to activist Zach Wahls’ parents in 2006 at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Wahls’ biological mother Terry who, “experiencing a bad bout of face pain” from her multiple sclerosis, was taken to the emergency room.
“It was pretty debilitating stuff,” Wahls said. “Jackie was trying to explain the situation and the doctor basically told her to shut up. She said the pain she endured that night was worse than any pain she had experienced by a factor of 10. And this is coming from a woman who had an emergency C-section without anesthesia.”
Wahls, 21, addressed the Iowa House Judiciary Committee in 2011 in a hearing to amend the constitution to ban gay marriage in Iowa. His testimony received national attention after a YouTube video went viral. Since then he has written a book and is touring American colleges and universities giving speeches in support of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning) community.
One defensive strategy same-sex couples can take is hiring a power of attorney. Also called a health care proxy, the medical power of attorney is a legal document that qualifies a person to make medical decisions on another person’s behalf. Even for couples who can afford such protections the ultimate authority remains with the doctors.
While Terry Wahls and Jackie Reger had legal documentation, “a piece of paper only goes so far,” their son said in a phone interview. “The doctors still refused to recognize those documents. They didn’t see their relationship as a real relationship. It really boils down to the individual’s personal decision.”
The crusade for equal rights doesn’t stop at the hospital either. When it comes to estate taxes, same-sex couples are treated differently too. Goldberg and Badgett explain how this federal law allows “heterosexuals to transfer unlimited assets to their spouse at death without incurring estate tax liability.” This means, same-sex partners whose inheritance is $5 million or more must pay a tax. This amount will fall to $1 million by Jan. 2013.
Perhaps the most publicized instance of an estates tax battle is the case of Edith Windsor. The 83-year-old shared a New York City flat with her partner of more than 40 years, Thea Spyer. When Spyer died in 2009, she left her entire estate to Windsor.
When one spouse dies, the survivor is entitled to personal assets or inheritance without incurring taxes. The federal government disagreed.
So despite New York recognizing same-sex marriage, the Internal Revenue Service landed Windsor with a $363,053 tax. She brought her case to court in Windsor v. United States. This October the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in her favor, stating the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional.
The Windsor victory has prompted UI Sexuality Studies Professor Ellen Lewin to say she thinks, “they’re going to overturn DOMA.”
“I just hope it’s while I’m still alive,” Lewin said.
The internal inconsistencies between state and federal lines make life hard and expensive for gay couples. Lewin and her partner of 22 years, Liz, have dealt with tax liability discrimination and have paid “a few thousand dollars a year.”
“It’s money that should be in my pocket,” Lewin said. “It’s money worth having.”
“You go through stuff and you can’t get equal treatment. It’s not because Iowa cares—it’s because it’s the federal tax code. Iowa doesn’t really have a choice. It’s very nice symbolically, but until the Fed does something, it’s just symbolic.”
Students Shower and Kruger also agree that completing tax returns is another setback. As a married same-sex couple, they are expected to file four tax returns: one federal, one state return, and two individual federal returns. “We could have filed as a gay couple. It was too confusing so I said ‘fuck it, I’m single,’” Shower said.
Four returns means more time and money spent. Since the declaration that DOMA is unconstitutional, suggestions for filing a protective refund claim have been popping up. In the event that the Supreme Court overturns the law, married same-sex couples will receive refunds for federal tax overpayments.
Even relatively simple processes like renting a car can manifest into a hassle unless you’re willing to do a little “standing up for yourself,” Lewin said. “Second drivers cost more unless you are married. But again it all depends on what kind of person you are dealing with.”
Lewin, who likens the present fight for same-sex marriage to interracial marriage of the ‘60s, said it’s harder for people with lower incomes. Being financially strapped, they have less wiggle room to use other mechanisms like powers of attorney, which are not always cheap.
She said says it’s often a running joke within the gay community for same-sex couples to marry multiple times. For instance, she’s been married thrice — to the same woman. There was a ‘92 religious ceremony at her synagogue in San Francisco, her marriage in Toronto in 2003 and her domestic partnership at Iowa City City Hall.
Until same-sex marriage is federally recognized, same-sex couples cannot benefit from the 1,049 legal rights that heterosexual couples can. Many have argued, Wahls included, that the government has defined gays and lesbians as second-class citizens.
Here are a few of the benefits gay couples are denied: filing joint tax returns, joint parenting, adoption, foster care, custody and visitation, obtaining joint insurance policies, automatic inheritance in the absence of a will, making medical decisions on partner’s behalf in the of illness. The list goes on.
A total turnaround is far off but not unimaginable. The recent court victory denouncing the validity of DOMA plus the reelection of President Obama are both signs of progress for the LGBTQ movement.
“This recent election was a resounding testament to the American commitment to civil rights. The nation’s first sitting president who supports same-sex marriage—it’s a big deal,” Wahls said.
“President Obama is, I believe, one of three who won reelection with the majority popular vote. It speaks very well for the future. The future looks very, very clear. I think we will continue to move in a direction toward civil marriage equality.”
Yes, gay marriage may not be as taboo any more but citizens like Shower still can’t escape being questioned if his marriage is legitimate. As long as DOMA stands, Shower and Kruger will soon join the ranks of other same-sex couples who face the financial realities of the haves and have-nots.
“You may not have something against same sex couples but when they are denied these basic rights they experience real harm,” Wahls said. “I don’t think there are many people who are actively trying to harm people like my parents, but the unintended consequences are exactly that.”
Disregard the fact that gay marriage has been legal in some European countries for years; Americans will continue to wait at the bottom of Capitol Hill.
Love and marriage, love and marriage. Is it really an institute you can’t disparage? To save a buck, it just might be.