Friday, January 28, 2005

Invited to the Feast, But Refusing to Go (A Parable by Sara)

Suppose there was to be a great, glorious feast in a fictional village. This feast would provide piles and piles of beautiful, delicious, nourishing food to almost everyone in the village.

Attendance at the feast was by invitation only. Certain types of people were invited, while other types were not allowed. Those who were not invited happen to comprise a very small minority representing about 5-10% of the population, depending on who you ask. According to the planned rules, anyone showing up at the door without an invitation would be turned away.

Because everyone in this village was hungry, a few of the Uninvited Minority went to see the feast organizers and pointed out the inequality and injustice of the situation. Some (although not all) of the organizers were quite sympathetic, but pointed to archaic village laws that prevented them from opening the feast to all. As a compromise, they offered the Uninvited leftover scraps from the feast. Accepting these was a bit degrading, but the Uninvited were hungry, so they agreed to this plan.

Now, among the Invited elite, there was one man who decided that even though he was hungry, he didn’t want to bother to go. Instead, he asked to be included in the scrap handout.

The Uninvited were generally a friendly bunch, but they were a bit put off by his request. “You can go if you want to, you know!” they pointed out. “We would if we could,” they said. They asked why he didn’t just go to the feast if he was hungry, but he had no good answer.

Some thought perhaps he was making a statement of solidarity with them, pointing out the injustice of the invitation-only feast. They praised him for this -- after all, that would be a great symbolic sacrafice on his part -- until he said, “no, it’s not that, I just don’t think I should have to go to the feast to reap the benefits of it. You don’t have to go, after all.”

Since many of the Uninvited desperately wanted to go, they found his stance quite baffling and a little bit offensive. Finally, they suggested that if he wanted to extend the scrap handout to include the Invited elite as well as the Uninvited, perhaps he should take his case directly to the feast organizers himself, just as they did. Perhaps he could make a good case for why he should receive the scraps by refusing to attend.

This was too much work, so the man chose to do nothing. He did not go to the feast and he did not receive the scraps. He sat at home hungry and has spent hours since complaining about the injustice of it all.

The above story illustrates my feelings towards heterosexual couples who complain that they are excluded from domestic partner benefit programs offered by some employers. You can get married. We would if we could. Why do you want our pathetic scraps when the entire feast is yours for the taking?

I’ve been thinking about this for the last couple days, after hearing this story on NPR the other day. The description:
“In Massachusetts, many private employers are phasing out their domestic partner benefits over the next few years, on the logic that since gays can now marry in Massachusetts, there is no need for benefits for unmarried partners -- gay or straight. Commentator Heather Dune Macadam says that if straight couples in Massachusetts want to share health insurance, they ought to get married instead of taking advantage of rights that gays have worked hard to earn.”
Now, I don’t have any sort of problem with employers who choose to cover both same and opposite-sex unmarried couples. This is actually quite common. I imagine in some companies, more heterosexual couples take advantage of the benefits than gay couples. My own company covers both types of couples. I admit I don’t really see the point, seeing as straight couples are free to get married, but if employers want to, then so be it.

I do have a problem with whining about employers that don’t choose to offer both. Why? Well, because it makes me think of the man in my little story up there. In most companies, domestic partner benefits didn’t just appear one day. Maybe in some cases the CEO of a company woke up one morning and decided to offer domestic partner benefits, but I would guess that this is pretty darn rare. In most cases, someone much further down the ladder – an ordinary employee – decided that his or her family deserved to be protected. That ordinary employee did the research, made the suggestion to management, answered questions, - that is, presented a business case to the “feast organizers” that handing out these scraps makes good business sense.

So, if you want your company to offer something like this, stand up and ask. Don’t sit around complaining that life is unfair. Make your case.

Regarding Massachusetts, I can understand why some of the employers are dropping the benefits and I don’t have a huge issue with this. Discovering that your family's health benefits are threatened a big deal and very scary, though, so I sure hope they’re giving employees enough time to get married and switch over. Also, I hope they have a backup plan in place just in case the state amends its constitution to ban same-sex marriage, thus invalidating thousands of marriages. If that happens, hopefully the companies can re-activate the domestic partner benefits for gay employees. Also, companies that are based in Massachusetts, but with offices and employees in other states need to remember that marriage isn’t an option for all of their employees.

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