The past few weeks have brought some good news for queer parents. According to a July 5th editorial in the Washington Post, the federal Office of Legal Counsel recently ruled that the child of a same-sex couple could receive child’s insurance benefits due to one of his mother’s Social Security Disability benefits.
Two women – whom the Post referred to as Monique and Karen - received a civil union when they first moved to Vermont with their son Elijah in 2002. According to the editorial, that civil union ensured that Karen legally qualified as a “parent” to Elijah despite the fact that she is not his biological mother. When Karen started receiving Social Security Disability benefits and stopped working, she requested that Elijah receive Social Security child’s insurance benefits as compensation for the loss of family income – and the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) determined that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) does not prohibit such benefits. The Post editorial quotes Deputy Steven A. Engel of the OLC as writing that “Although DOMA limits the definition of ‘marriage’ and ‘spouse’ for the purposes of federal law, the Social Security Act does not condition eligibility for [child insurance benefits] on the existence of a marriage or on the federal rights of the spouse in the circumstances in this case.”
The most important factor, it seems, is that the law in Vermont recognizes the minor (Elijah) as the child of the adult in question (Karen). Deputy Elder and the OLC imply that the decision in this case had little or nothing to do with Karen’s status in a same-sex partnership, and that Karen’s right to confer her Social Security benefits to Elijah is contingent on the state of Vermont’s recognition of Karen as a legal parent to Elijah. However, Karen’s status as a “legal parent” appears to be irrevocably intertwined with her status in a legally recognized partnership.
The ability of a non-biological parent in the United States to attain the legal status of “parent” is inconsistent and dependent on a variety of factors: access to resources, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, location, income, among others. Had Karen and Monique not had the opportunity to receive a civil union and procure that legal recognition of their relationship, would Karen have legally qualified as Elijah’s parent? I’m not sure anyone could say for certain.
While civil unions do not directly help single parents, they have shown – in the case of Vermont, for example – to ensure rights that can be extremely valuable to a wide array of LGBTQ people. There are many issues facing LGBTQ people that will not be solved via civil unions, and there are serious limitations to how effective nationwide civil unions would be; however, a case like this one in Vermont could be seen as a step in the direction of accounting for the needs of LGBTQ couples and parents who receive benefits from the government. The OLC’s decision to uphold the right of non-biological parents to confer benefits to their children could be important for many queer and non-queer people alike. It could register as particularly significant for transgender people who are, in many states, essentially required to seriously impede – or even eliminate – our ability to biologically reproduce before we can be recognized as our desired gender.
Legal relationship recognition is not purely symbolic, as many “HRC gays” obsessed with the institution of marriage would have us believe. It’s not even necessarily about the legal rights conferred to spouses, though that is clearly one potential positive attribute. For people who live off the government, it can be about having the right to provide for, take care of, and have children. Queer and trans activists can build off Monique’s, Karen’s, and Elijah’s victory and focus on the significance not of marriage, but of the economic benefits for adults and children that can accompany legal recognition of LGBTQ parents and their relationships.
If this nation isn’t “ready” to acknowledge LGBTQ individuals’ right to get married, why not push for civil unions that would open economic doors for LGBTQ people to be recognized as parents and take care of our children? Many queers and trans people have criticized Barack Obama for his views on “gay marriage”, for example, but I think Obama is correct in focusing on the economic inequalities underpinning legal recognition of couples in this country instead of getting wrapped up in the hype around the religious institution of marriage. I’d take a civil union any day – and, it seems, so would my children.