A room of two’s own

Margaret Schultz

Last week my classmate Lauren Duckman contributed the first of a trilogy of articles concerning Lawrence’s attitudes toward gender and sexuality as manifested in its off-campus housing policy. She outlined the extreme lengths to which domestic partnerships must go in order to prove themselves as “legitimate” married couples. In lieu of a marriage license, Lawrence is willing to accept the more disempowering and archaic aspects of marriage such as joint bank accounts or leases. (Couples considering marriage are strongly encouraged to keep their finances separate.) Having explored Lawrence’s attitudes toward gender and marriage from the perspective of students, we then wanted to figure if Lawrence’s faculty shared any correlating experiences of “coupledom” bias.
Lawrence’s faculty benefits, as described by Chair of the Governance Committee Frank Doeringer, are available on a non-discriminatory basis. For example, health insurance is provided for three different statuses: single person, two-person, and family. Each policy is progressively more expensive for the faculty member, given the greater number of insured parties. The applicant is purportedly at liberty to choose which status is appropriate for his or her needs.
Until recently, Lawrence’s health care provider refused to cover domestic partnerships, no doubt since doing so meant paying for more people. The Governance Committee – representing newer faculty members dissatisfied with this policy – managed to persuade Lawrence’s benefits providers to incorporate domestic partnerships into their coverage policies. Therefore faculty members living in domestic partnerships can now apply for two-person coverage alongside their married co-workers.
While convincing providers to include domestic partnerships in their coverage is an undeniable success, these domestic partnerships are limited by the exact same restrictions experienced by students attempting to apply for off-campus housing. Among the five qualifications for proving one’s status as domestically partnered, faculty members and their companions must assert that – in addition to being responsible for one another’s common welfare – they “share financial obligations.” Common shared obligations included joint leases, being the primary beneficiary for life insurance, or joint bank and credit accounts.
Granted, not all of these qualifications need be satisfied; domestic partners are not forced to share bank accounts as long as they prove “shared financial obligations” via other avenues. Nonetheless, we should ask ourselves why benefits providers have assumed the right to delineate what is or is not a domestic partnership — and why must domestic partners abandon financial independence and agency in order to achieve a status equivalent to marriage? Is it acceptable for institutions to retain this antiquated notion of marriage as an economic unit, and to then force applicants to conform to such notions in order to secure health care and benefits?
It is important to realize Lawrence University is not responsible for their providers’ dictatorial and restrictive validation of domestic partnerships and couples in general. However, as faculty members or as students we are members of the Lawrence community, and we need to recognize the insinuation of institutionally constructed values into our private lives. We need to reexamine the methods by which our private intimacy is exploited for organizational convenience, and we need to locate and eliminate the means by which outside forces label and compartmentalize our interpersonal relationships.