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Convenient Conviction December 31, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in discrimination, education, liberal arts college, Vassar College.
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I’m having a tough time at my academic institution at the moment. It’s Open Enrollment period at Vassar College where I’ve been a tenured faculty member since 1994.

During “Open Enrollment” employees may review current benefits and select new benefit coverage. This week I handed in my form to change my health plan and I’m still smarting because of the tax penalty I’m forced to endure despite Vassar’s nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation.

Since my domestic partner of nearly 18 years—the person with whom I’m been ‘civilly united’ for ten years, the very same woman who I’ve been married to for five years, and the co-parent of our two cherished children—was laid off from a position that provided medical benefits, I opted for the “Family” rate in order to cover myself and my three family members. To the College’s credit, after we LGBTQ faculty argued for it in the late 1990s, Vassar opened up medical insurance to unmarried domestic partners, both heterosexual and same-sex couples.

So, today unmarried couples employed by the College can insure domestic partners. But the benefit comes with the proviso that “paycheck deductions are monthly and pre-tax, except for domestic partner deductions which are after-tax.” This may seem like no big deal but over the course of a lifetime of employment, the dollars of tax penalty add up to a substantial sum. And then of course there is the principle.

I contacted our benefits administrator to make sure that the category “Family” would be applied in my situation, rather than the two separate categories of “Parent-Children” and “Domestic Partner.” I was told that indeed the College considered us a family but that my partner’s portion of the benefit was taxable. I was to be mollified by the fact that the taxation would be applied in the most limited possible way to my deductions and the tax hit would be roughly just $125 per month. I was to be assuaged by the statement that no one in the benefits office agrees with the Internal Revenue Service on the taxability policy but that they don’t have the option to disobey it. I wish I could feel more grateful but in fact this reality stinks.

I’m feeling stung by the national discourse about tax cuts that are occurring simultaneously with the continued Congressional dickering over Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. How will we LGBTQ people ever get equal rights in this country? One answer is that we must agitate vociferously against capitulation to discrimination that leverages the feeble excuse of compliance with laws that flout professions of commitment to equality.

Vassar College’s non-discrimination policy prohibits discrimination or harassment by members of the College community against members of the college community based on the following: race, color, religious belief, sex, marital status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national or ethnic origin, veteran status or age. In my opinion, Vassar can demonstrate a true commitment to nondiscrimination on the basis of marital status, sexual orientation, and gender identity by compensating same-sex faculty members for the tax penalty of having our partners on our medical insurance.

Syracuse University opted to do just that early in 2010 placing that institution, as far as Inside Higher Ed is concerned, “on the cutting edge of promoting equity.” When I brought the Syracuse policy to the attention of our benefits office early last year, my inquiry was treated with silence. I raised the issue again this year, appropriately during Open Enrollment, and was told that numerous unmarried heterosexual couples were also impacted by such tax policy. But let’s remember that unmarried heterosexual couples have the choice of whether or not to enter into a marriage that is recognized by the U.S. government whereas my “wife” and I, despite our best efforts, do not.

I was proud that in celebrating the life of our president emerita, Virginia B. Smith who passed away this year at the age of 87, Vassar touted her accomplishment of a life partnership of 57 years with Dr. Florence Oaks. I wish I could be proud of a robust nondiscrimination policy as well. But at the current moment I must characterize Vassar’s nondiscrimination policy as merely a conviction of convenience.

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