When I saw the Prop 8 plaintiffs huddled around the cell phone, hearing the President of the United States personally congratulating them on their role in the historical day for gay rights, a day on which the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down, too, I smiled. Their happiness was contagious.
My inbox quickly filled up with celebratory emails from activists and organizers and many of the most powerful political leaders in the land. So many were proud to be part of the moment. In the media, analyses and opinion pieces proliferated.
I wondered, though, whether the extraordinary efforts on behalf of civil rights for the gay community would ever be extended to people who happen to be, or choose to be, single. Would the media saturation and effusive congratulations that have greeted the victories on the road to marriage equality also mark the milestones on the way to unmarried equality?
There are more than 100 million Americans, 18 and older, who are divorced or widowed or have always been single. I'm one of them. I'm 59, I've always been single, and I always will be. I'm not just single - I'm single at heart. Single is who I really am. It is how I lead my most meaningful and productive life.
Followers of the LGBT quest for fairness know that there are more than 1,000 federal benefits and protections bestowed only upon those who are legally married. Even if same-sex marriage rights prevailed in all 50 states, unmarried Americans of all sexual orientations would still be left unprotected. They would remain second class citizens.
If I, a single person with no children, work side by side with a married person at the same job at the same level of seniority and accomplishments, and we both die, my married co-worker's benefits would go to the surviving spouse (and possibly to a series of ex-spouses, if they fit the requirements); mine would go back into the system. Just as I cannot leave my benefits to the person most important to me, no one else can leave their benefits to me.
An uncoupled single person pays more income taxes on the same taxable income than a married couple filing jointly, even though in some married couples, only one person earns an income. Single people also pay more in estate taxes - they cannot transfer assets to another person the way a married couple can. In fact, the recent challenge to DOMA was motivated largely by this issue. Two women, Thea Clara Spyer and Edith Windsor, had married in Canada and were living in New York. When Ms. Spyer died, Ms. Windsor inherited her property but was assessed about $360,000 in taxes that a married man and woman would not have to pay.
Single people are not as protected as married people under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Any person, regardless of marital status, can take leave under the Act in qualifying workplaces to care for a parent or child. But married people can also take leave to care for their spouse, whereas single people are not covered to care for an equally important person in their life, such as a sibling or close friend. Analogously, people such as siblings or friends cannot take a leave under FMLA to care for an ailing single person.
In research, my colleagues and I have documented housing discrimination against single people. Much discrimination and other forms of singlism happen informally. In workplaces, for example, coworkers and bosses who believe in the stereotypes that single people don't have anyone and don't have a life sometimes expect single people to stay later, come in on holidays, and accept the vacation times that no one else wants. In the marketplace, deals that make products, services, and entertainment cheaper by the couple are deals that are subsidized by the single people who are paying full price.
Now that nearly as many Americans are unmarried as married, and the percentage of households comprised of married parents and their children has dropped to about 20 percent, we can no longer ensure fairness for all simply by opening marriage to more. We need to recognize that equal protection applies to all people, regardless of marital status, and that for more than 100 million American adults, the most important person in their life is not a spouse.
[This was cross-posted at the Single at Heart blog at Psych Central.]