Marla R. Stevens

Tax Time

Filed By Marla R. Stevens | April 13, 2005 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement

My mother has a knack for giving birth on memorable days. I was born on Human Rights Day (which, when we lived in California, was also Property Tax Day) and my sister on Income Tax Day. Because of my sister's birthday, April 15th has never been quite the onerous day it is for most people. Cake and ice cream tend to brighten even the darkest mood. Besides, I've always felt it a privilege to be an American and haven't minded paying my fair share of the country's upkeep.

But that changed last year. Just a week after Phyllis and I were civilly married in Toronto on July 26, 2003, I read an article in the Village Voice that said, in part:

"Should two women or two men try to file a joint return in the United States, the Treasury Department will flag it and schedule them for an audit, with penalties ranging from heavy fines and house arrest to hard time in federal prison."

DenialOMA strikes again. Phyllis quipped, "Thanks for the wedding present, Bill.", referring to the jaw-drop-inspiringly charismatic guy* who defined the computer age version of the wet-finger-in-the-wind, poll results = policy, political-expediency-trumps-political-courage-every-time presidency and who signed DenialOMA into law.

Knowing that we were likely to run into some resistance to our civil marriage back home that would no doubt present us with challenges to our moral courage and fortitude, Phyllis and I had carefully discussed whether to do what our hearts had always wanted and sense of personal justice had always cried out for -- to add the civil marriage component to our long-standing religious marriage as soon as we could (when the Ottawa court decision came down we were literally researching which Dutch language program to buy and how to deal with their insanely difficult permanent residency process) -- or to postpone it if either of us felt we could not do whatever it took to stand up for our marriage and tell the truth, no matter the cost. (Okay, to be honest, I was the one carefully going through all the ethical noodling, wanting to make sure Phyllis really, really knew what she might be getting herself into. Phyllis, as usual, was saying things like, "Yeah, whatever, honey. I knew you couldn't do it without doing it, ya know. I know I can't predict what it's all gonna come down to but I had that all factored in already. You know me, I'm gonna go with the flow. 'Whither thou goest' and all that.")

Now some people who know the tabletop-occupying, truth-talking-to-power, walked-across-police-lines-at-the-Supreme-Court (holding Michael Hardwick's hand and had to be carried off) me might think that I would have relished the opportunity to go mano-a-mano with our government over something as important to me as marriage equality. But you have to put things into the context of the time.

In the summer of 2003, momentous things were happening almost too fast to keep up with them. The two biggest were the Supreme Court's Lawrence decision striking down sodomy laws and the Ottawa marriage decision followed almost immediately by the British Columbia one.

For the first time in forty years, I was no longer an unconvicted felon. I'd suffered nerve damage from police abuse enough that I still lack partial feeling in my right hand and other parts of it tingle strangely as a fairly constant reminder that human flesh is weaker than hard plastic and steel and human fear and hate -- yet can survive in spite of that.

I had also buried fear and pain and anger about being a perpetual criminal -- something that, coupled with growing up in the the apartheid South and observing and rejecting the illogic of racism in grade school a year or so before I had an epiphany that Cuban or Russian nukes would take all us schoolkiddies out long before the powers-that-were could get done with the evacuation it had taken all day to accomplish in the city-wide drill they'd tried and that that "duck and cover" game was just too much pig dirt to play along with, had so completely defined who I had grown up to be: quintessentially internally controlled and dependent on my own judgment about what was right or wrong, not some outside authority's.

Being released from that lengthy under-a-Damoclean-sword existence was such a rush -- better than any drug I'd ever taken -- and, the sixties in Marion County with David Crosby jamming in my high school's amphitheater at lunchtime with the sweet smell of burning weed wafting into my practice room in the music building at the top of the hill, tripping on legal acid (when it was all the rage for Berkeley psych theses) watching the sun not being there and marvelling at just-how-fabulous drinking water from a fountain was after watching tennis balls bounce on a night-lit court with the quarter-in-the-slot lights that went oooooooooooonnn and oooooooooooooooofffff kinda young thing I was, I'd pretty much tried 'em all. Thinking myself tough and seasoned and above it all, I had had no idea what kind of magnitudinous grinding negative effect that living under the perpetual threat of prosecution -- however remote -- and all the social approbation that attached to being in a criminal class had had on me all those years until I was finally free from it. I wasn't exactly looking forward to having to live under that sword again.

But, ever-thorough, I did my research and discovered that, yes, the government was hell-bent on using DenialOMA to coerce my wife and me to deny our marriage at threat of criminal prosecution -- to take that sweet Velveteen Rabbit sense of finally being real that was our wedding gift from the people of Canada and our vulnerable newlywed/oldywed emotional new high of love that you get when, with government/society's sanction, you take your commitment to each other to a whole new level that you never dreamt possible seeing as you've been religiously married practically forever and shared everything possible and been as close as possible and as commited to each other as possible (or so you thought) and neener-neener taunt it with the possibility that you could be ripped from each others' arms and held without possibility of even writing to each other (legally unrelated felons are not permitted to communicate with each other unless perchance they are imprisoned together -- and who wants odds that that would happen!?!) Under the minimum sentencing rules then in place, we could have gotten 12 years in prison and been fined up to a quarter of a million dollars each (not to mention the actual tax difference and tax penalties and being held pretty much indefinitely under infinitely renewable contempt charges if we refused to testify against each other -- fat chance!) for every tax filing.

But first we had to wonder if we were going to be able to even get back in the country to file at all after submitting a joint customs declaration on return from our honeymoon (also subject to the same main criminal penalty that filing tax forms as married people earns us, by the way). We left on our Disney cruise to the Caribbean anyway and, although the customs lady did give us the evil eye, we'd waited to leave the ship when we got home until the very last minute for the very last bus and the pressure on her to move us through was thus enormous and she ended up shrugging her shoulders and letting us pass.

That was before Customs got into the big flap with Canada when they refused entry to the first same-sex couple civilly married in Canada when those dear fellows insisted on being treated like the married people they are and Ashcrap issued stern directives about it and the Social Security Administration got their knickers all tied up in knots about same-sex married couples using their marital status for name changes and the passport people chimed in and the DOJ, getting so snarly, encouraged IRS agents to get even nastier than they had been about it all to begin with.

So we got home, fed the cat, my wife got transferred to Iowa, and we moved to that windy wasteland, figured out that there was a MIPA (Marriage Inequity Perpetuation Amendment) in the works there, alerted the community we hadn't really even gotten to know there yet, and settled in to near-Arctic hell replete with lousy restaurants and the strangest political climate ever. As the ugliness in the press and legislature and churches (Iowa is nothing if not one big church and pig farm) from the Iowa versions RPE (Religious Political Extremist) hatemongers escalated and Income Tax Day inched ever closer, our anger and anxiety grew exponentially. Even humor, our usual safety valve, wasn't working. And the IRS agents we had contact with -- one in particular practically licked his lips at the prospect of "getting" two lesbians -- weren't helping.

There would be no help from the organized gay community, either, and it isn't the groups' fault. It's just not the right time for a DenialOMA challenge -- and we respect that and will do our best to do nothing that would create bad precedent and make it that much harder to challenge DenialOMA when the time is right.

I can't say that we didn't talk about buckling under, of submitting to the pressure to lie about our marriage, of following the advice all the lawyers were giving: give it up and file as single people, file singly but enclose a joint form and letter of protest, file jointly but include a letter of explanation and a check for any tax difference (they're not recommending that one anymore as the IRS has declared that they'll consider any married filings as unfiled), etc. But all the solutions they offered required us to equivocate about our marriage. We just couldn't demean it, the promises we made to each other, or the love we share by doing that. We just had no moral choice but to tell the truth by filing simply and normally as any other married couple and let whatever that brought happen without cooperating in our own oppression any step of the way.

When we checked the "Married Filing Jointly" box and signed our names to the 2003 1040 form as spouses, we thought about how opposite-sex couple newlyweds must feel the first time they do that -- and what a different experience it was for us. Frankly, it was a relief to put it in the mail.

In the year that's followed, I've thought about it often and written about it from time to time** but the feds sent us our refund check (filing jointly gives us a substantial tax break) which we haven't cashed (this is about dignity, not the money) and the feds (nor the Indiana Department of Revenue) seem not to have figured it out yet haven't come calling. (We've gone out of the country and presented our customs declarations as a family again without incident, too.) We haven't gone out of our way to hide what we're doing -- just taken it as it comes. When a reporter from The Seattle Times called us about it last week, we told her the truth, too. Her story appears in her paper today.

Last weekend, we talked a lot about what it's going to mean to have the story in a paper the IRS will likely see. We went online to figure out what it will take for us to emigrate to Canada and started making real preparations for that -- oh, and we signed yet another 1040 as the married people we are.

Pray for us.

-- Marla

P.S. In the Julian calendar, it's Thomas Jefferson's birthday (O.S. calendar, it's on the second of April). Give a big hurrah for the author of the Declaration and Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom -- while there's still enough of his dream included in both in this country to celebrate!

*In person Clinton's even more irresistable -- he practically glows. Every time I'm moved by one of his speeches -- which is every time I hear one, by the way -- then think about what he's really willing to perform in contrast, I get closer to true Monica empathy.

** Typical of these is this excerpt from a letter to an Iowa legislator: "It is, for us, an experience not unlike Daniel Pearl's when his al-Qa'ida executioner offered a false promise of safety if he would only deny that he was a Jew. He refused, preferring to retain his soul no matter the peril otherwise and, likewise, we refuse to be bullied into complicity in our oppression by Iowa's government."

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DATE: 4/13/2005 03:16:09 PM

Marla, brilliant post. My best to you and your wife.

AUTHOR: skyler

DATE: 4/13/2005 03:59:29 PM

Great entry....I'm digging the funny.Good luck with everything!

AUTHOR: Bil Browning

DATE: 4/13/2005 10:34:40 PM

What a great Seattle Times story featuring you and Phyllis! Way to go! :)