Monday, April 20, 2009

Relationship Recognition

In the past month, a couple of minor events have served to gently remind me that I'm in a different country where my relationship is legally recognized.

While Sarah and I were living in the US, we faced numerous hardships due to the fact that we didn't have legal recognition of our relationship. Obviously, the biggest problem was that she was not eligible to apply for a permanent visa as my spouse. But, other simple day-to-day things were also made more difficult due to this lack of legal recognition. Here are just a few of the many examples.

  • Until my employer changed its policy shortly before we left, we were not able to be on each others' health benefits, meaning that if one of us lost our job, benefits would also be gone (unless we wanted to pay $900 a month for COBRA). This also meant that there wasn't much possibility of either of us working part time or staying home to raise a child because then the one not working full time would be without benefits. Even after my employer started allowing "domestic partner benefits" (and, gosh, I just realized how nice it's been not to have to use that phrase since I've moved to Canada), my partner's benefits would have been taxable. Benefits are not taxable for married couples. Sarah's company, G&T Industries, never offered "domestic partner benefits."
  • We had to make sure that each others' names were on every large item we purchased (furniture, cars, home) because otherwise the unnamed person would not take ownership of the item in the event of the other’s death.
  • When returning from trips overseas, we had to fill out separate forms and go through customs and immigration lines separately. It doesn't sound like much, but those trips through customs and immigration when returning to the US were very stressful 1-2 hour ordeals. On more than one occasion, I found myself at the baggage claim anxiously scanning the crowd, worrying whether Sarah would get back into the country. Even though she had every legal right to be in the US, sometimes the immigration officials are known for finding ways to delay people or even send them back home.
  • We frequently rented cars to take road trips to visit friends and relatives so as to avoid putting extra miles on our own vehicles. In order for us to both be allowed to drive the car without an extra fee (as much as $10 per day), we not only had to find a rental car company that treated same-sex partners the same as married couples in terms of allowing drivers, but then we had to out ourselves to the desk agent upon picking up the vehicle so that they didn't charge us.
  • Between both of us breaking various bones in soccer and my periodic kidney stones, we had our share of trips to the emergency room. It was sometimes a bit awkward when the hospital staff would ask the non-injured one how we were related to the patient. And while we never experienced someone telling us we couldn't accompany the other because we weren't "family," that fear was always there. Also, the uncomfortable silence that followed when we did explain our relationship didn't help either one of us to feel better.

Everything I've listed above relates to some sort of either peace of mind or advantage that we should have had by default but didn't because our relationship wasn't recognized. However, while we knew we were disadvantaged in this respect, we got used to living that way and adapted to the point that, now in Canada, when one of these hurdles is non-existent, it catches us off-guard.

When Sarah moved here and started her job in July, she was able to put me on her benefits immediately as a spouse, no questions asked. She didn't have to fill out some "domestic partner" form explaining the nature of our relationship or provide bank statements or other evidence of our partnership. She had a lot of fun enrolling both of us in the benefits purely because of the novelty.

Every time I've been to any facility in Canada where I have to fill out an emergency contact form, I put Sarah's name and "spouse" in the relationship field. That’s also been kind of a fun novelty for me. I was a bit sick of putting "partner" or "friend" on the equivalent forms in the US.

One big shock to me occurred when Sarah applied for a job at the company where I work in Kitchener. The application required her to disclose the names and relationships of any relatives already working at the company. She had to put down my name, and this made us both a bit wary. Putting something like that on an application for a job in the US would be an instant disqualification at many companies. I was a bit worried about repercussions. I spoke with my boss who just looked confused as to why I was worried, and then she explained that discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal. (I will be writing more about the Canadian reaction to stories of our lives in the US soon--that's an entry in itself.)

Then, about a week after Sarah's interview, she had a call from my company's human resources department. She thought they would be asking for references, wanting documentation of her education, or even offering her the job. Much to her surprise, they called to let her know that they were considering hiring her but that they had to explain the company's policy on nepotism (spouses can’t work in the same department), information that was necessary to give her considering she had a family member (ME!) working for the company.

I had a really hard time mentally processing this dichotomy--so, in the US, it would be a BAD idea to disclose that you have a same-sex partner (as discrimination of that sort is perfectly legal on a federal level as well as in most states, Michigan included). In Canada, Sarah was not only legally obligated to disclose her relationship with me, but she was legally protected.

Within a week, another experience, though quite insignificant, reaffirmed my appreciation of our new situation. It was time to file the Canadian income taxes, and for the first time ever, we were able to file jointly. I sincerely doubt that it made any difference in the amount we were taxed or the amount of our return, but it did make the filing a bit simpler. And, it was exciting for us to be listed as spouses on actual government forms. To drive that newfound exhilaration home a bit more, the same day I did our Canadian income taxes, I also did our US, Michigan, and Grand Rapids city taxes--all six forms, three for each of us.

As I mailed all six envelopes to the appropriate US, Michigan, and Grand Rapids taxing authorities, I was filled with not only a feeling of closure, but a feeling of contentment knowing that, in all probability, I would never again be paying income taxes to support a government entity and a society that views and treats me as a second-class citizen.


MSEH said...

Great to hear from you and ditto the sentiment of all you wrote!

pcbedamned said...

First of all, Welcome to Canada and I am glad that for the most part, your experiences have been positive. I found your blog by accident and I have been quite surprised at the differences between our two countries. In fairness of full disclosure, I am a Canadian Conservative (but I guess that by now you have learned that is not the same as an American Conservative), but with serious Libertarian leanings. Most Canadians, regardless of our politics or religious leanings, tend to 'Live and Let Live'. What you do in and with your life is fine. I found it amusing and sad at the same time upon reading your experience re: making friends when you first came here. I am glad that you realized very quickly that yes, it is a cultural difference. We do tend to be much more reserved when it comes to our personal lives until you know us well, and then try to shut us up!!! (We are still very British in our actions and as for our humour, well, it is very dry...)
This particular entry (April 20) when I started, had me furrowing my brow. I guess my expression would be similar as to what your boss had. Before I even got to the next paragraph, my only thought was ABOUT nepotism. (My father used to work for The City. When I applied to work there I used my maiden name:-)
Again, Welcome to this Great and Truly Free Country. I hope you come to Love it as much I do. (and yes, as to our National Anthem, it is sung with affection).
I will definitely be checking back to see how things are going...