From Theory to Praxis: Marriage and Taxes through a GSS lens

As I prepare to pursue a Masters in Accountancy, it may be difficult to see how topics we discussed in GSS101 will connect to my future career. One of those topics was marriage and the reasons for and against same-sex marriage. Advocates often cited tax benefits as a “pro” for the passage of same-sex marriage, so I wanted to explore what tax benefits couples can receive when married versus not, and how the tax code may subtly discriminate against certain groups.

Married taxpayers can file either of two ways: either individually by the head-of -household or jointly, but only if the marriage is recognized. Before the 2015 Supreme Court Decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage, couples could not file their taxes jointly, and therefore may have been disadvantaged in the amount of taxes they paid. To determine how much someone pays to the government, every individual is placed in a bracket by the amount he or she earns. The tax code places married couples in brackets by the amount the couple earns together. In progressive tax structures, which many states and the federal government currently use, those in the higher income brackets are taxed at a higher rate. For joint filers, the 10 and 15% brackets, where most people tend to fall, are twice as wide, and the higher tax brackets are less than twice as wide, so a joint-filing couple might be more likely to fall into this lower tax bracket than two individual filers would.

Not all same-sex couples may benefit from joint filings. Married couples usually receive either a penalty or a bonus on their taxes. Penalties occur when a couple has to pay more taxes than it would if it filed individually, and bonuses occur when couples save money by filing jointly. When spouses earn similar and relatively high-incomes, they are more likely to receive a penalty. These penalties tend to occur because as joint filers, these couples are less likely to be able to take deductions for children, but if they separated into single and head-of-household, they would be able to receive deductions for dependents.

On the other hand, joint filers can also receive marriage bonuses, which most often occur when one spouse earns all the familial income. A joint filing would likely shift this couple into a lower tax bracket because the lower brackets are twice as wide and, therefore, incorporate even some high earners. In reality, those who make less money, like many LGBTQ individuals who felt same-sex marriage argument was only a battle for upper-class, white gays and lesbians, could benefit from a decrease in taxes if married. These people, however, were largely arguing against this very idea. They realized that the institution of marriage is all about protecting wealth, not love, and if LGBTQ couples want to “redefine love,” they should not feel the need to buy into the heteronormative institution of marriage. In examining this tax structure, I would argue that, beyond LGBTQ individuals, heterosexual women should also be more aware of the patriarchal assumptions that the tax code for joint-filers makes. While a heterosexual couple can still earn a marriage bonus if the woman earns most of the income, it is clear that those who have set up the code over the years have assumed that women would not earn an income, or at least not one that would be competitive enough to negate a bonus.

As we have learned, using a GSS lens can give a new perspective to the assumptions and subtle discrimination that exists in every part of our society. Even in progressive tax structures, ones that liberals fight to protect, discrimination, unfortunately, still exists, and if we intend to ameliorate this pervasive issue, we must at first recognize it. It will be beneficial to take this interpretation into my future career, as I may help people choose a filing, not necessarily just based on money, but also understanding their stance in their relationships.

Sources Referenced:

Beyond Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law

“A woman married to a man for nine months is entitled to Social Security survivor’s benefits when he dies; a woman living for nineteen years with a man or woman to whom she is not married receives nothing.”[1] The debate over marriage equality for same-sex couples was one that took over the country’s social and political agenda in the early 2000’s. Nancy Polikoff’s Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage challenges this agenda by asking both straights and gays alike to consider a broader definition of what constitutes a family and how this structure should be protected under the law. Those protected by the institution of marriage have privileged status in regards to tax benefits, estate benefits, government benefits, employment benefits, medical benefits, and death benefits among others. Polikoff calls for a revamping of family law; one that takes into consideration the changing nature of family units while also deemphasizing the status of marriage in our society.

Nancy Polikoff is a professor of law at American University Washington College of Law. She teaches Family Law and a seminar on Children of LGBT Parents and has been writing about, litigating about, and speaking about cases involving LGBT families for the past thirty years. Her accomplishments include co-founding the Washington, DC Feminist Law Collective, supervising family law programs at the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, and co-authoring one of the first law review articles on the custody rights of lesbian mothers. Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage is Polikoff’s first book. She has a daughter in her twenties and lives with her partner in Washington, DC.

The first half of the Beyond Marriage gives the reader historical context as to how we got to the position we are in with marriage today. It begins with the advances made by the second-wave feminist movement in the context of marriage, and then describes how those advances have been attacked since the 1970s by the religious right. Betty Freidan, Gloria Steinem and others are cited in this section, along with groundbreaking legislature like Title IX. From there, she moves into the gay rights movement and the intersection of lesbianism and feminism. Eventually she delves into the marriage movement of the conservative right and the how the push for preserving marriage as an institution for heterosexual couples strengthened marriage’s societal status. She then brings the reader to the contemporary fight for marriage equality, the most thorough part of the first half of the monograph.

Generally, there are two dominant perspectives in the contemporary marriage debate. First, there are those who support the institution of marriage and believe that opening it up to non-heterosexual couples will undermine social structure. Second, there are those who support equal access to marriage for LGBT individuals since they deserve the same access to benefits as married heterosexual couples. Throughout the book, Polikoff makes reference to groups on both sides of the argument. Frequently mentioned supporters of the marriage movement include The Institute for American Values, the Alliance Defense Fund, and the Liberty Counsel. Those often mentioned on the side of marriage equality include Lambda Legal, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. All of these groups fight for legislation supporting their side of the argument or represent individuals in relevant court cases. Polikoff separates herself from these prominent groups by taking a third stance. She questions the legitimacy of marriage as the necessary qualification for receiving legal benefits and questions whether it is fair to exclude so many other family forms by limiting such benefits. This allows her to reframe the debate over marriage by making the point that the benefits associated with marriage are not inherent, they have been constructed over time and have increasingly drawn a line between families formed through marriage and families formed through other means. By fighting for the right to marriage for LGBT couples, dominant organizations like the Human Rights Campaign are reinforcing the place of marriage in our society as cultural institution that unfairly awards rights to the married and leaves those who are unmarried out to dry. She enforces the argument that marriage is outdated and the benefits that accompany it were developed decades ago when having sex outside of marriage was taboo, illegitimate children were considered outcasts, and marriage had gender roles legally entwined within it. Through the examination of historical movements, she determines that people have changed the way that they view and structure their lives and the current marriage equality movement does not reflect this change.

The second half of the book is dedicated to describing specific aspects of her proposed approach, called “valuing all families,” to make marriage matter less. The most important aspect of this approach is identifying the purpose of specific laws that currently grant marriage-specific legal consequences. By understanding the specific objectives of these laws, relationships can be identified that would further the law’s objective without creating a specific special status for married people. In regards to this approach, she addresses health care, medical leave, medical care, domestic partner benefits, the dissolution of relationships, death, and economic compensation. Polikoff argues that by taking this approach, our society can move more towards a legal system based on the nature of care and dependency in relationships, not just the relationship’s specific name. Her solutions are not only for same-sex couples, they are also for people non-conjugal relationships, like unmarried elderly people, caregivers and the people they help, or friends living together. For instance, through this approach she examines the current family and medical leave practices of businesses across the country, supported by anecdotes of those who were not allowed such leave to care for an ill family member. Many medical leave policies are limited to caring for a spouse or child with serious illness and are often unpaid. Polikoff proposes support of the “Healthy Families Act,” a bill that provides seven days of paid leave per year “to care for a child, a parent, a spouse, or any other individual related by blood or affinity whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship.”[2] This kind of reform breaks down barriers and helps to redefine the law’s narrow definitions of family that do not accurately reflect today’s society.

Polikoff’s breadth of knowledge of her field is evident as she provides a comprehensive overview of legal history as it applies to social movements throughout the decades. This method is extremely effective in giving the reader context into the foundational aspects of marriage and establishing the true dividing line that it has become. By making interdisciplinary links through feminism, sexual liberation, class, and justice, her argument is multidimensional and looks at marriage through the views of different legal lenses. The inclusion of a significant amount of laws and court cases is appropriate since the nature of her “valuing all families” solution focuses on reforming these laws. In contrast to the formality of the included law, Polikoff includes many anecdotes and case studies throughout the monograph to explain how the law has failed certain families because of the marriage dividing line. These short stories help to break up the dense law material and make it easy to envision why her reform needs to be implemented in real world situations.

Although at first the idea of diminishing and eventually removing the significance of marriage in a society may seem radical to the general population, Polikoff’s presentation of her argument makes it seem truly possible and reasonable. She provides concrete solutions for reforming laws, many based at the state and local level, and also provides several examples of places where similar laws have been successfully enacted. Even with the abundance of case law, the Beyond Marriage is very much readable by those without Polikoff’s extensive background. This monograph is meant to reach a broad audience due to its increasing relevance, however, due to its connectedness with the marriage equality movement and gay rights, the audience becomes more limited.

Polikoff reinforces in Beyond Marriage that people should have the choice to marry based on their individual beliefs, whether they be cultural, spiritual, or religions in nature. It should not be a choice that people are forced into to obtain unique legal benefits that are specific only to marriage. The end goal of her efforts is a system in which marriage is not the rigid dividing line between who is in and who is out regarding family law, through her “valuing all families” approach. This monograph is a valuable resource for people in all family structures and can help our society move towards a legal system that helps improve the lives of all individuals and families.

Works Cited

Polikoff, Nancy D. Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008.

[1] Nancy D. Polikoff, Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), Cover page.

[2] Nancy D. Polikoff, Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), 172.

The Nuptial Deal: Same Sex Marriage and Neo-Liberal Governance


On June 26, 2015 the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Thousands of LGBT couples can now receive state recognition for their partnerships. Some of these couples had been together for decades and they understood better than most heterosexual couples just what their marriage meant. Homosexual couples now had access to 1,138 federal rights only available to married people, they could rest easy knowing they would not be barred from seeing one another and their children in the hospital, and they hoped that this legal decision would increase public acceptance.  This issue had become a social focal point for the LGBT community taking precedent over issues such as improved welfare state. Jaye Cee Whitehead’s 2011 The Nuptial Deal: Same Sex Marriage & Neo-Liberal Governance explains the arguments leading up to this historic decision and explores the reasoning and exclusions that made marriage equality the focal issue for the LGBT community.

Whitehead expertly explains neo-liberal governance and how this ideology structures the arguments both for and against marriage equality in the United States. Neo liberalism is the application of efficiency and practicality to the management of the population. Whitehead emphasizes the use of governance rather than government because often this management occurs not through formalized laws but through underlying institutions. Neo-liberal governance stresses methods of self-governance by pushing responsibility away from the state and on to the self. Marriage is, therefore, a technology of neo-liberal governance because it transfers problems such as poverty or care for the sick from the social sphere to the private family sphere.

Whitehead argues that the prominent LGBT dialogue, particularly from Marriage Rights Now[i] (MRN) the group she investigated, plays in to the neo-liberal framework by promising to reinforce rather than destabilize the social structure. In the “nuptial deal” homosexual partners agree to maintain marriage systems that reduce state expenditures and the state in return provides privacy and legitimization to their union. The nuptial deal of course only benefits those who have enough resources to share or pass on, and the book focuses almost exclusively on these privileged stories. Whitehead demonstrates how nearly every argument for marriage equality is structured, and sometimes censored, so that it fits a neo-liberal narrative. Through the obvious argument of increased tax revenues for the state, the argument that marriage benefits all homosexuals by promoting acceptance and understanding in society, homosexual’s desires to internalize their family health and economic concerns, and an overemphasis on the homonormative monogamy in the LGBT community Whitehead demonstrates why homosexuals traded other social concerns to fight for same-sex marriage. One powerful quote reads, “Proponents of same-sex marriage do not question the symbolic power of the state to create social groups or categories… instead, they struggle for the capital of recognition that these categories afford” (108).

Dr. Whitehead is aptly positioned to render this study and discuss its results as she is a sociologist with specializations in gender, sexuality, family, emotions, and social theory. A professor at Pacific University in Oregon she has contributed a great deal to this field of literature through books, papers, lectures, and opinion pieces. Although The Nuptial Deal is partially ethnographic, and Whitehead therefore recounts many of her own experiences, she refrains almost completely from including her own opinions about the marriage equality movement or the efforts of MRN activists. The reader’s only insight is a brief paragraph in chapter one where Whitehead announces her own opposition to legal marriage as a restrictive institution, and although she celebrates the victories MRN achieved she is discouraged by the neglect necessary for these victories.

The Nuptial Deal is interdisciplinary in nature as it draws upon Whitehead’s background in sociological theory, ethnographic observations and interviews, and textual analysis of official court documents to present its arguments. Additionally Whitehead’s work situates comfortably between several literature narratives while adding an otherwise absent ethnographic component. She writes,

The concurrent development of the ‘right to marry’ and assaults on those who fail or refuse to live up to the neo-liberal model of the dual earning-couple have been at the forefront of queer, feminist, and gay and lesbian analysis of the family. With my discursive ethnography of same-sex marriage activism, I build on this literature by explaining how marriage can make neo-liberal calls for self regulation of population-level problems so enticing (18).

She additionally relies on, though does not elaborate, upon literature describing the history of same-sex marriage and its social contexts, and utilizes Foucault’s work on government and Bourdieu’s concepts of symbolic power to craft the reader’s understanding of neo-liberal governance.

While I found all components of The Nuptial Deal compelling, it is Whitehead’s unique use of ethnographic interviews that served to best convince the reader of the influences of neo-liberalism in the marriage equality movement. She includes quotes and stories both promoted and silenced by MRN, and through these she uncovers what is unnatural about the argument that marriage is a natural union. The first example is one of careful language choice that demonstrates how pointed MRN’s argument was. Whitehead observed a discussion between new members; they used the phrase “same-sex marriage” several times before being interrupted by a leader. “It’s called ‘marriage equality,’ not ‘same-sex marriage.’ We really don’t want to use those words because it brings the bedroom into it” (96). This quote serves as a convenient and convincing way for Whitehead to articulate MRN’s desires to normalize the gay community to the public.

Another key argument in The Nuptial Deal is that the same-sex arguments fights the slippery slope argument my buttressing the superiority of monogamy in promoting stable societies. This secures gay marriages without leaving the door open for a fundamental change in the institution of marriage or allowing similar rights to polyamorous relationships. Whitehead’s interviews with various MRN members reveal how strongly this point is emphasized as well as the opinions of members who disagree but do not speak out. For example when she asked one member about marriage’s discrimination of alternate forms of intimacy he replied, “It’s definitely on the fringe… I am just personally such a strong believer in monogamy that, um, I don’t [see it]. I have a hard time seeing it as discrimination” (144); while others expressed agreement with Whitehead’s point and did not agree with the inherent dangers at the end of the “slippery slope.”

Much like the speaker in the quote above the reader is unfortunately not brought to see the true discrimination of marriage. Whitehead includes stories of middle class gay couples struggling with school pick-ups or filling out forms, but she does not include stories of those truly marginalized by the institution of marriage. She looks for blind spots within MRN noting that all leadership positions are held by white upper-middle class homonormative couples, but she does little to correct for these blind spots in her own analysis. An ethnographic account of someone who rejects marriage, even the author herself, would have served her argument well, and without it we are left, like many in MRN, “not seeing” the full oppression of marriage.

Whitehead is convincing in her claims of the influences of neo-liberalism on the discourse of marriage equality, but as a reader I was left desiring a stronger historical exploration of just how the two ideas emerged and eventually converged. Whitehead contrasts the current gay respectability to the more radical standpoints of the 60s and 70s. She also contrasts current neo-liberal concepts to an earlier time when the state was seen in opposition to the free market, but she does explain how we got where we are today. Although a full discussion of these two evolutions might prove too lengthy or beside the point, I was disappointed by the lack of historical discussion on the two prominent ideas in the book.

As is mentioned above I found The Nuptial Deal to be clearly written, expertly argued, and generally compelling[ii]. As a child from a single-parent household I am no stranger to the structural and sociological benefits marriage provides. For this reason I was, like Whitehead, able to appreciate the strides made for marriage equality while still being conscious of those that were excluded from the nuptial deal. I believe the author focused too narrowly on her fieldwork with MRN, and an increase in the dissenting opinions throughout history and today would give the reader a fuller understanding of the problem at hand. Nonetheless the book excels in its contributions to queer studies, sociological and family studies, and the general public’s discourse on same-sex marriage. Although written during the pinnacle of the marriage equality debate The Nuptial Deal remains an important discussion of the impact of neo-liberal governance and will remain relevant long after the court’s 2015 decision.

[i] Marriage Rights Now! is a pseudonym for the actual organization Whitehead studied.

[ii] Although I don’t recommend reading most of the book on Valentine’s Day, as I did, if you plan to celebrate the inherently monogamous holiday.



Whitehead, Jaye Cee. The Nuptial Deal: Same Sex Marriage and Neo-Liberal      Governance. University of Chicago Press. December 2011. Print

“Jaye Cee Whitehead, PhD.” Pacific University Oregon Website. n.d. Web. 15 February 2015.