Last week I cleared out my checking and savings accounts, plus my sock drawer stash. Then I handed over that thick stack of twenties, fifties, and hundreds in exchange for money orders to pay my tax bill.
Ben Franklin’s adage about the certainty of death and taxes may be sardonic, but here in the United States during tax season, the reminder seems apt. Today’s news contained stories about the tax rate, about loopholes, about promoting certain social behaviors through tax breaks, about corporate taxes, about who pays how much — or how little.
A few weeks ago I read about the Refuse to Lie project, where legally married same-sex couples in the United States pledge their refusal to mark “single” on their federal tax returns, potentially facing stiff consequences for filing jointly. Under IRS rules, same-sex couples who live in states that recognize their marriages are nevertheless instructed to file their federal taxes separately since US federal law only acknowledges man/woman marriages.
When Taryn and I sat down to work on our tax returns, I told her about the Refuse to Lie project and we discussed our filing choices. We opted against filing our federal taxes jointly, in part because we have not been legally married and committing perjury isn’t my favorite way to spend a spring day.
However, we did have the option of filing our state taxes jointly, since Oregon has recognized our relationship since 2009 when we filed our Declaration of Domestic Partnership. I call it my Second-Class-Citizen Marriage. To file our state taxes jointly, we each filed separate federal returns, plus prepared an “as if” joint federal form to acquire the necessary figures to finalize our state return.
When I compared the bottom lines of our single tax returns and our fanciful joint return, I felt nauseated. A few thousand dollars is a lot of money to me. Instead of getting a healthy refund if the feds recognized (and apparently valued) my relationship, I was digging around in my dresser, scrounging for every last dollar I had socked away, wiping out my scant savings in order to pay Uncle Sam.
Let’s be clear – I am not opposed to paying my taxes. Sure, I’m opposed to plenty of things the government does with my tax money, but at a core level, I feel pretty good about paying my share. But to see the actual difference in our particular circumstances floored me. Given how arbitrary gender seems, it frustrates me that a Male or Female designation (and resulting legal marriage options) determines whether we find ourselves a few thousand bucks richer or poorer this tax season.
Gay couples don’t necessarily get a windfall if they file jointly. Kate Kendell of the National Center for Lesbian Rights wrote today about her decision to file jointly, and how doing so created a larger tax burden for her family. But Kate and Sandy filed jointly anyway, since they were legally married in 2008. Imagine having a joyous wedding celebration, including a legal marriage license, and then marking “single” on your federal taxes.
My feelings about marriage are ambivalent, at best. I’ve swung back and forth and sideways on the marriage question.
When I was a teenager, I was suspicious of marriage, sure that such a status would be an inevitable straight jacket on my spirit.
When in my early twenties, queer and delighted with the irony that I had fallen in love with someone sporting a flesh penis, I gleefully proposed to him and we wed, barefoot, in the garden.
When I was in law school, I researched and published at length on the problems inherent in our modern marriage system, from legal, social, and theoretical standpoints. I was outspoken about the legal challenges and barriers nontraditional families faced, given the extreme prejudice the law gives toward heterosexual monogamy. When I say “nontraditional families,” I’m not (only) giving a crooked euphemism for same-sex couples. I mean families with multiple, related or unrelated adults, who may or may not be raising children. I mean people who share households and finances and loving care, but for whom the government gives no protection nor requires obligations. I also mean blended families.
And all that time, as I was railing against the modern marriage system, I was benefiting from it, though insufficiently. I was in a nontraditional family unit with two other adults, but two-thirds of us were protected under the law. Though many in our social circle didn’t realize that Billy and I were legally married, I was under the umbrella of state legitimacy, enjoying the rights and obligations relative to one of my partners. My privilege, as a married spouse, bothered me, when I saw a third of my family outside protection of domestic law. Yet the health and tax and property benefits gained with marriage dissuaded us from dissolving the legal portion before the relationship ended.
Just as powerful as the right to marry is the right to divorce and be treated fairly by the courts when dividing debts and property. Those rights aren’t usually discussed as much as the rights obtained by marriage, but arguably they are even more important, as they protect the partner with less clout and power.
Being denied the right to marry the person I love really pisses me off. I took it for granted when I was a wee-twenty-something, and then grumbled about it while still benefiting personally. Now as a slightly crustier thirty-something, I call foul.
Sure, I still see marriage as problematic, legally and theoretically.
Sure, I still think there are social aspects of marriage and all its attendant assumptions that are harmful to individuals, families, and communities.
And sure, on the other hand I also see that some of the best parts of marriage have nothing to do with law or tradition or taxes and are instead rooted and uplifted by the act of declaring one’s love and devotion, of letting family and friends bear witness to and celebrate that declaration.
When I complained about the discrepancy in my tax bill, one of my whip-smart friends (who describes herself as “technically, but not legally, married”) responded, “The way I see it, I don’t want their corrupt tax break for supporting their elitist and corrupt institution. The US can stay the hell out of my love life.”
While I mostly agree with her assessment, I’m still smarting over the unfairness of my joint federal form’s fanciful refund and the single federal form I mailed with a painfully hefty money order. It would be one thing if I chose not to get married. But being told I can’t rankles me. Granted, I also think that multiple consenting adults should marry, regardless of their genitals or gender identity. I think it’s worth valuing families made up of people who choose to commit themselves to a shared life.
I freely admit that my views on marriage have moved with the tides and perspectives of my own experience, as a legally married young wife, as the protected spouse in a nontraditional family unit, as a divorced woman breathing single, and now, as part of a second-class-citizen “marriage” called a Registered Domestic Partnership. I expect those views will continue to shift as social and personal circumstances change.
But at the bottom line, I’m most interested in what gets promoted, why, and how. How we take care of each other matters, whether as sexual intimates or as life partners or as self-created families of various stripes.
The United States doesn’t deem my family socially valuable and therefore worthy of its tax breaks. But we love and care for each other anyway, just as millions of people in similar and divergent families do, every day.