Unless you happen to be married to a citizen of a foreign country, re-entering the United States after a trip abroad, adopting a child, or dealing with the death of a spouse (and if you are, my condolences), if you're one half of a legally married same-sex couple, there's a very good chance that this time of year -- tax time -- is the time you and your spouse most acutely feel the sting of marriage discrimination.
If you live in a state without marriage equality, you know how degrading it is to have to check the box next to the word "Single" on your federal and state tax forms.
If you happen to live in one of the six states where marriage equality is the law of the land, or in any of the five non-equality states that allow same-sex couples to file jointly, you're at least spared the indignity of your state government pretending that you and your soulmate are legal strangers. But due to the discriminatory "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA), the federal government is forbidden from recognizing the marriages of same-sex couples. For the moment, at least, your legal marriage does not exist in the eyes of the United States of America. And while state-level marriage equality or relationship recognition is unequivocally a good thing, same-sex couples know that the dissonance between state recognition and federal non-recognition can create some pretty major headaches during tax season.
I'm not going to spend any time going into detail about the tax-specific ways that DOMA penalizes same-sex couples; many others have already very capably done so. (Check out these two informative articles from The New York Times, for example.) But I am going to take a minute to share a brief personal story about the impact DOMA has had on my husband Michael and me this past year.
In 2011 Michael and I moved from our home state of Wisconsin (a state without marriage equality) to our new home in Vermont (a marriage-equality state). Let me tell you, the difference between the two is like night and day. I don't think I can overstate how much it means to us both to live in a place that values the loving marriages of all couples, gay and straight, or our gratitude to all those Vermonters who worked so hard to make marriage equality possible.
But living in a marriage-equality state for the first time did make filing our taxes a little more eventful. Vermont, like most states, uses the figures from a couple's federal return to compute their state return. Because our legal marriage means we file jointly with the State of Vermont but DOMA forces us to file separately and singly with the United States, Michael and I -- well, our amazing tax preparer -- were forced to complete four tax returns: one individual federal return each (which each of us ultimately files), a "dummy" joint federal return (to combine our incomes, adjustments, credits, etc. in order to obtain the necessary numbers for our state return), and our joint state tax return (which we file with the State of Vermont). While the extra step of preparing that "dummy" federal return is a big-time hassle, it also provided us, for the first time, the opportunity to see exactly how much more we paid in taxes because the federal government forces us to file singly rather than jointly, as our straight counterparts are able to do. The difference between those two numbers is what I and others refer to as the "gay tax."
For my husband and me, that difference in 2011 amounted to $1,566. To some of you, that might not seem like much, but trust me: to a young professional couple, one of whom works in the nonprofit sector, $1,566 is a good chunk of cash. That $1,566 could have gone toward the purchase of a car that's newer and more reliable than the one we currently own, which was built when this 27-year-old was in the fifth grade. It could have helped pay down our student loans or some of the credit card debt that he and I incurred in order to pay our bills during the 15 months when neither of us could find full-time employment. It could have paid for our groceries for nearly nine months! But no; instead, we're forced to pay it to the IRS because our legal spouse happens to be of the same gender. We're paying a $1,566 "gay tax."
If you've read this far and are wondering why I bothered to spend any of my time and energy on an issue that's such old news, consider this: if I had a dollar for every wide-eyed, incredulous, shocked look I've received over the last year whenever I bring up the subject of federal tax discrimination, I'd have more than enough money to pay my $1,566 "gay tax." I choose to share my story because of the truly astonishing number of well-meaning people, both inside and outside the LGBT community, who have absolutely no clue that same-sex couples incur federal tax penalties even when they live in states that recognize their marriages. I'm speaking out about how the "Defense of Marriage Act" hurts my marriage, my family, because we've got to change hearts and minds all across America if we hope to see that awful law repealed. And I'm speaking out because those hearts and minds won't change unless all of us continue to speak out and share our stories.
If you're a victim of DOMA, you can speak out right here and now by leaving a comment below. Go ahead, tell your story. How costly was the "gay tax" for you and your spouse this year?
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