Features

Business as unusual: Firms go gay friendly

National | Domestic-partner benefits on the rise in American businesses

Issue: "Reno Under Fire," April 26, 1997

She is interviewed on Prime Time Live and Oprah. Her face adorns scores of magazine covers. A Washington lobbying organization is handing out hundreds of party kits to celebrate the event. By now everyone this side of the Hale-Bopp comet knows that TV character Ellen will announce on April 30 that she is a lesbian.

The much-hyped and highly orchestrated "coming out" of TV sitcom character Ellen has been heralded by homosexual pundits as a major milestone in the country's acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle. Less publicized-but no less orchestrated and no less significant-is the growing list of large American companies that recognize homosexual unions through "domestic partner" policies.

Ten years ago the term "domestic partner" was rarely heard. Only a handful of employers-such as the American Civil Liberties Union or the Berkeley, Calif., city government-allowed their employees to include their unmarried sexual partners in employee benefits previously reserved for traditional families. But as WORLD has reported, companies with domestic-partner benefits now include financial institutions, such as BankAmerica, the traditionally conservative IBM, and the once family-friendly Walt Disney Co.

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The domestic-partner bandwagon is not confined to large companies. About 7 percent of all employers in the United States have some form of domestic-partner policy, and another 3 percent are actively considering adopting one, says the Society for Human Resource Management, which based its estimate on a randomly selected poll of 2,000 of its 80,000 members.

The Washington-based homosexual lobby group, the Human Rights Campaign-the same group that is handing out party kits to celebrate Ellen's coming out-also trains employees to get their bosses to implement domestic-partner policies. WORLD interviewed spokesmen from most of the 28 Fortune 500 companies [see chart] identified by the Human Rights Campaign as having domestic-partner polices. Key points from this survey are:

**red_square**Most of the firms adopted the policy in the last two or three years-an indication of the sheer momentum behind the domestic-partner juggernaut.

**red_square**Two thirds of the firms are located in the states of California and New York; these are mostly high-tech and media/entertainment firms.

**red_square**About half of the firms provide domestic-partner benefits to both same-sex and opposite-sex partners, while all but one of the rest offer the benefits to same-sex couples only. The most common reason given for not including opposite-sex partners is they have the option to get married while same-sex couples do not.

**red_square**Companies typically base eligibility on a signed affidavit that often includes terms such as "committed relationship," "common residency," and "financial interdependence." Because these terms could also apply to an employee and his parent, brother, or sister, some companies add qualifiers: that the domestic partner must be in a "spouse-like relationship" with the employee or cannot be closely related to the employee. While this limits a company's financial liability, it erodes claims to fairness and denials that companies are promoting sexual sin: Why discriminate against unmarried, sexually pure employees who would like to include their household members on the company's insurance policy?

**red_square**Two of the firms surveyed finesse this sin issue. Principal Financial Group in Des Moines prefers to call its domestic-partner policy a "non-traditional adult dependent" policy because it includes elderly parents and others categorized as dependents living in the same household. Xerox's somewhat similar approach gives employees money to purchase health insurance for household members not generally eligible for coverage under Xerox health plans.

**red_square**Despite claims by homosexual-rights activists that gays make up 10 percent of the population and that large numbers of employees are clamoring for domestic-partner benefits, virtually all spokesmen said that no more than 1 percent of their workforce had signed up for the benefits. Speaking of the homosexual employee group, GALAXE, Xerox's Brent Laymon said "their primary motive seems to be recognition rather than a need for medical benefits."

**red_square**All respondents said the costs of extending health benefits to domestic partners was equal or less than that for traditional families. This is important because fear of increased costs has deterred some firms from granting domestic-partner benefits. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, the three reasons firms do not yet have domestic-partner benefits are (1) no interest from employees, 56 percent; (2) concern that heath care costs will increase, 30 percent; and (3) moral objections, 21 percent.

**red_square**Most spokesmen (generally media relations staff) downplayed any hint of controversy associated with the decision to implement a domestic-partner policy. "We had maybe six to 10 calls from protesting employees," said Joe Fuentes of Adolph Coors, adding that "a Topeka, Kansas, minister showed up for a one-day picket with about six others and then left." Walt Disney's spokesman, Ken Green, refused to talk about boycotts against his firm by the Southern Baptists and the American Family Association. (In fact, after inquiring about WORLD's editorial policies and readership, Mr. Green moved to cut off the interview.)

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