A few years ago, probably sometime in 2007 or 2008, I was visiting my parents in Nashville and we were taking a trip to visit my brother sister-in-law (then his girlfriend) in Memphis. It’s about a three-hour drive, and my parents were driving separately for some reason so I rode down with my dad. About an hour into the drive, we were talking about domestic partner benefits and I off-handedly asked if his company offered them. He said “no, we don’t,” I replied “you should,” and the conversation went on. A minute later, though, he brought the conversation back to that and asked me to defend my position while explaining why he thought it made sense that the company he worked for didn’t offer domestic partner benefits. (I’ll note here that my dad loves to turn casual discussions into serious debates. I never know when this will happen but when it does it usually spells a lot of stress for me.)
My main point was that you can’t say you have a gay-friendly work environment and then treat your gay employees in the unfriendly way of not providing the same benefits to their partners as you do to your married straight employees’ spouses. I did argue for non-married domestic partners who could choose to get married as well, but that wasn’t the main focus for me. My dad wanted to know how I would define “domestic partners” to make sure people weren’t cheating the system, and took the fact that I didn’t have a great definition at hand to mean my argument was flawed and not a sign that I, say, was in a car in the middle of rural Tennessee with no time to prepare for a debate on domestic partner benefits.
His arguments were that the company couldn’t afford to pay for partners of gay employees (although he also said they had very few, which if that was true means they probably could afford it with no problem), that people might lie to get benefits for folks who weren’t actually their partners, and that gay employees of their company didn’t feel like second-class citizens because they weren’t being harassed by their co-workers. He gave me the specific example of Larry, a bargeworker who everyone knows is gay but no one messes with, because they know that won’t be tolerated at work (also possibly because they don’t care).
I think “not being harassed” is a basic requirement for a good workplace that shouldn’t even need to be mentioned – I’m sure gay employees appreciate that, but more in the way they appreciate having adequate heating in the winter or restroom facilities that aren’t belching up raw sewage. I realize that plenty of workplaces don’t have these things, but they’re generally seen as necessary and not a perk. I tried to explain that if Larry went home to a partner every day, the fact that he didn’t get laughed at on the job wouldn’t make up for not being able to get health insurance for that person.
I was defensive because I felt put on the spot to pull statistics and a fully-formed plan out of my ass, and I think he felt defensive because he really felt that it wasn’t an anti-queer policy (despite the fact that mostly queer people would be hurt by no domestic partner benefits), and I was really worn out by the end of it. He did, however, tell me that at his next board meeting he’d bring it up. He said I shouldn’t expect anything to come of it, but that I’d changed his mind enough that he would at least mention it. I have been tempted to bring this up again in the years since then, but never quite got there – it was a very tense conversation for me, and I never felt ready to dive back into it. I was really happy to see this at the end of an email he sent me yesterday:
BTW, after we spoke a few years ago about domestic partner benefits at [company], I took it as a challenge to get our benefits program changed and this year we’re offering them–same and opposite sex. It didn’t take a lot of convincing but there were some people who were a little hesitant that we won over. Not that we deserve a medal or anything for doing the right thing, but in Nashville it’s quite a step. Thanks for challenging me on that.
This is great for me to hear, not just because his company is now offering domestic partner benefits but because he thanked me for having that conversation with him. The stress that I can remember even now is worth it if it made him think about what I said and actually take action. I get frustrated sometimes being out in a lot of areas in my life – sometimes I’m the token queer or trans person and it’s up to me to explain a huge and diverse group of people that is amazing enough to mostly defy explanation in a lot of ways. I’m not always up to the task and it can be emotionally draining, but this is the payoff . I’m sure Larry is happy.