I get pretty upset when people argue against equality, but there is one particular argument that gets me more than most. It goes something like this: since civil unions and marriage are really the same thing with a different name, why can’t LGBT Americans just settle for the former in order to keep from offending those who consider the latter a religious institution?
The incredibly obvious answer is that civil unions and marriage aren’t equal at all. Setting aside the fact that even if civil unions and civil marriage were completely identical institutions the division would still violate our judicial ideal that separate can never be equal, there are very real federal benefits and rights that come along with marriage that same-sex couples can never receive.
In fact, there are over 1,000 benefits that marriage couples receive from the federal government that same-sex couples can’t access, including the ability to save money by filing joint tax returns and receiving access to government pensions and health insurance. (A married lesbian couple in Massachusetts actually filed a lawsuit last week, arguing that they’ve to paid $15,000 more in taxes than a straight couple would have to, since they are forced to file separately each year.)
One additional inequality that comes along with the federal distinction is the difference in inheritance law for married straight couples and same-sex couples who can’t be married under federal law.
This issue has been given a face and a name after The New York Times reported last month that photographer Annie Leibowitz was forced to use her work as collateral in order to secure a loan and resolve her financial difficulties. Queerty and After Ellen have both reported that some of the financial difficulties faced by Leibowitz were likely due to the fact that when her long-time partner Susan Sontag died in 2004, Leibowitz would have had to pay significant taxes on her inheritance– a tax liability that wouldn’t have been incurred if they were a married, opposite-sex couple.
Annie Leibowitz is just one of many to have been hit by these discriminatory regulations, to be sure, but her relatively public case does underscore an important point. Equality is more than a hypothetical ideal, and inequality is not in name only. There are very real consequences to our continued reliance on a system that treats some people different than others, and those differences can be catastrophic.