Thursday, August 9, 2012

Left and Right in the Eye of the Beholder

Once again, when gay rights are set back here in the US of A, I try to look at the big picture and keep focused on long-term gains, remembering that sometimes, as the French say, “il faut reculer pour mieux sauter” (you have to take a step back to get a better jump).  I remember, for example, the sick feeling I had back in the 70s when Anita Bryant was having so much success persuading Americans that gay men were all child molesters at heart.  And then the surprise and welcome backlash from that when her backwardness provoked the kind of outrage that launched the careers of many a gay rights activist, who ultimately helped get us the rights we have today.  A dark cloud with a silver lining if ever there was one. 

More recently there was Prop. 8, this nasty push by some in the official Roman Catholic hierarchy and their Mormon bandwagon jumpers to remove the rights to marry gays had for a time in California.  That has turned out to be another cause to rally around, and the courts have looked at its content and its consequences and spotted the bigotry.  And this has helped to raise the consciousness of many more Americans about how big the problem is.  The battle isn’t over, though.  News came of a setback the other day in Hawaii.  And then there was the word today that what seemed recently like a clear path to same-sex marriage victory in Maryland may be premature optimism.  And, of course, there was that Chick-Fil-A event.  Can’t hide the fact that was a real challenge for the glass-half-full folk.

I have to wonder, though.  All those smiling faces at Chick-Fil-A, all that righteousness, all that smug conviction as the godly American right bellied up to eat fried chicken for Jesus.  I hope America is watching and not shrugging it off as I wanted so much to do at first.  It too could be the kind of catalyst Anita Bryant was and Prop. 8 seems to be.  One can hope.

Meanwhile, I am greatly encouraged by what is happening in Germany.  In case you don’t follow these things too carefully, Germany is going places these days, in terms of civil rights.  They did not follow Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden in Europe and other countries elsewhere in granting full marriage rights to LGBT folks, but they did institute a civil union arrangement in 2001 (following France in 1999), granting them most of the rights heterosexual couples enjoy.  “Eingetragene Lebenspartnerschaften” (registered life partnerships) have enabled gays to enjoy pretty much all rights except joint adoption, pension, and tax benefits. 

Over time, the injustice of some of those exceptions has been mitigated.  In 2004, a new law was passed that permitted a partner to adopt his or her stepchild, and alimony and divorce laws were also simplified, and in 2008, transsexuals were granted the right to stay married to the partners they had before transitioning.

Germany has the same kind of right/left distinction, the same divide between conservatives and liberals the United States has, but it has a very different center.  As you would expect, notable resistance to change came from the conservative parties, the CDU/CSU unions (Christian Socialists in Bavaria, Christian Democrats elsewhere), the parties historically tied to organized religion, and the market-centered deregulation-oriented FDP (Liberal Democrats).   An especially egregious imbalance remained, after the pro-gay reforms, in the tax laws.  If you were the survivor of a married couple, you paid between 7 and 30% in inheritance (specifically land-transfer) taxes.  If you were in a registered life partnership, you paid between 17 and 50%.

Then things began to change.  First off, just over a month ago, on June 28th of this year, the Green Party submitted a proposal in the Bundestag to fully legalize same-sex marriages.  That would have cleaned up the still nagging fact that gay couples could not adopt and were paying inheritance taxes at a higher rate.  It failed 309 to 260 with 12 abstentions, with the dividing line, as usual, between the conservatives, CDU/CSU and the Liberal Democrats on the right, and the progressives, the Left Party, the Socialists and the Greens on the left. 

This fact must have been on the mind of Christine Lambrecht, of the socialists, when she complained that it is “unacceptable for registered partners to have to ask for their rights piece by piece.” 

Then, more notably, apparently out of nowhere (at least it seems that way to me as an outsider), thirteen members of the CDU registered their displeasure in writing that “time and time again policy makers have to be ordered by the Federal (Constitutional) Court to abolish inequality.”    Angela Merkel’s Health Minister, Kristina Schröder, soon joined them.  And Vice Chancellor and Minister for Economics, Philipp Rösler, followed suit.  Cynics will tell you there is a political motive behind all this, that none of this stems from personal conviction, but what else is new?   Ms. Schröder reasoned – don’t miss this – that extending the same rights to gays that straights now have “enhances conservative values.”

What is so mind-blowing about all this from an American perspective is that these are all conservatives.  Which is to say the terms we use here for progressives (not to use that word the right is trying to turn into a bad word and the left is letting them – liberals) and conservatives don’t match up.  Their conservatives are left of our center by some considerable amount.  Which is another way of saying we have allowed our center to move so damned far to the right we’re like the frogs in the boiling water – dying and not even noticing it, most of us.

It’s still in the works, in Germany, this boring tax system modification which means a whole lot if you’re the survivor of a gay life partnership.  But it would seem to be on its way, and Germany will be the richer for it.

We will take a little longer, sodomized (and not in the fun way) as we are in this country by the worshipers of the Golden Idols of Scriptural Literalism and Big Daddy Catholicism.

Nothing much to do but tend the garden, listen to Bach and Mozart, clean the bathroom sink and wait for the day the U.S. catches up with Germany.  And most of the rest of the modern world.  And not just in gay rights, either, but I won’t beat two drums at once just now.

And if all else fails, you can always say you learned a new German word: Ehegattensplittung.

Quick and easy German lesson:

Ehe is German for marriage, and Gatte is the word for mate – not in the buddy sense, traditionally, but in the make-babies and “other half” sense.   Put them together and you’ve got spouseEhegatte. Then put this word together with the English word splitting, and you’ve got Ehegattensplitting.  Don’t worry about the n.

That leaves you with a strange word – “spouse splitting” – which makes no sense until you realize that Germany, like California, is into community property notions and filing taxes jointly.

The problem has been that that option has only been available to you if you are in a regular marriage.   If you are in a same-sex partnership, you have had to file separately.   Since Germany’s income taxes are graded, if your incomes are unequal, filing jointly can be a big advantage, since the one with the bigger income gets pulled down into a lower tax bracket.

In today’s Süddeutsche Zeitung I came across this:
“Fraktionschef Frank-Walter Steinmeier kündigte einen fraktionsübergreifenden Antrag zum Ehegattensplitting im Bundestag an.”
Literally, that’s
“Faction chief Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced a faction comprehensive proposal for Ehegattensplitting in the Bundestag.”
Steinmeier is a lefty, to be sure, and leader of the opposition, but this suggests he is forcing the hand of the conservatives, insisting they put their money where their mouth is.  And that means, after some grunting and groaning and reading between the lines, I decided there was good reason to translate it this way:
“Frank-Walter Steinmeier, leader of his party’s faction, filed a motion in the Bundestag on behalf of a number of political groups to give life partners the same option to file jointly that married couples now enjoy.
That’s a pretty free translation, of course, but then I’m a liberal.  

My point is not that German has big words.  It is that Germany's conservatives, many of them, are looking pretty cool to me at the moment.   There seems to be consensus that the conservatives have come around and will stop holding back full rights for gays and lesbians, virtually opening the door to full and equal marriage.  Some are looking forward to the day they can entice more gays into the conservative parties.  We won't go there.

I’d still vote Green, probably, if I were a German, or at least social democrat.  But, as an American, I’m green with envy that Germany has a political scene I could only wish we could import as readily as we do their Audis and Volkswagens and Mercedes.  Mercedeses.  Whatever.

You know what I mean.


1 comment:

William D. Lindsey said...

Wonderfully instructive report on the German situation, Alan, which is always a bit murky to me as an outsider.

It strikes me that the more downright stupid we Americans appear to the rest of the world about these matters, the more we provoke constructive change in some other societies, which don't want to be equated with, say, Afghanistan under the Taliban or Uganda.

As many of us Americans are intent on being identified these days, whether we know it or not . . . .

We sauter in the direction of outlandish "bible"-based discrimination, and the rest of the civilized world reculers with alacrity in the opposite direction, in its haste not to appear like the Americans!