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Thomas F. Coleman: Single-Minded Change Agent

Tom Coleman has been advocating for singles for decades

During those early days when I was first thinking of studying singles and singlism (a term I had not yet coined), and when all I had to go on were my own personal experiences, I wondered what was already out there on the topic. I still remember the 1990 Los Angeles Times article that I found, that captured so much of what I would be thinking about and working on in the years to follow. It was titled, "Report finds widespread bias against unmarrieds." LA Times reporter Victor Zonana quoted law professor Thomas F. Coleman, then chairman of the Consumer Task Force on Marital Status Discrimination (stop for a moment to savor that - a task force on marital status discrimination!). Coleman said, "Discrimination based on marital status is arbitrary, inappropriate, illegal and unfair - but it is also a pervasive national problem."

Later, when I moved out to the West Coast, I met Tom Coleman and learned so much from him about marital status discrimination and about the process of standing up for the rights of people who are single. He was the Executive Director of the American Association for Single People (AASP) at the time. Now, the Unmarried America website, thanks to Tom Coleman's work and dedication, is a wonderful resource with all sorts of information and media reports relevant to people who are single. As the home page indicates, the site is focused on the interests of singles "as employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters."

I was so taken by all of Tom Coleman's efforts on behalf of single people that I did not realize, for a long time, that his singles advocacy was just one chapter of his lifetime of advocacy on behalf of civil liberties and equal rights. Now in his new memoir, The Domino Effect: How strategic moves for gay rights, singles' rights, and family diversity have touched the lives of millions, he tells his own story of his life as a single-minded change agent. It is an important contribution to our understanding of the history of equal rights advocacy over the past four decades.

Happily, Thomas Coleman has agreed to talk to Living Single readers about his work as a change agent and his new book.

1. Bella: Let's start with the personal. Is there something that happened in your life, or in someone else's, that really brought home to you the need for change? I'm talking about change on any level - the way we think about people who are single in everyday life; the place of singles in the workplace, in the law or in public policy; or anything else that seems relevant. Do you have a story you can tell about this?
I "came out" as a gay man as I was about to enter college in 1966. I also met someone and we embarked on what would turn out to be a long-term relationship. I soon realized that I would be permanently locked into a marital status of "single" for the rest of my life since I could not see the day coming when same-sex marriage would be legal. I felt discrimination against single people on a variety of fronts. My auto insurance was higher since I was a single male under 25 years of age. Married men my age got a huge discount for auto insurance. I also experienced discrimination in housing. When my partner and I applied for an apartment, the landlord told us that he did not rent to single people. We talked him into renting to us anyway by telling him that we were blood relatives; that my partner, who was 10 years older than I, was my uncle. I also felt the oppression from religion. I had been raised a Catholic and the church only allowed two people to have sex if they were married to each other. Many states had laws on the books that made unmarried sex a crime. So my interest in the issue of marital status discrimination started out on a very personal level.

2. Bella: Is there one particular issue or goal that is especially important to you as you try to create social change?
It is very important to me that marital status discrimination remains an equal rights issue even when same-sex marriage is legalized. I do not want the LGBT community to drop the issue of marital status discrimination the way that women's rights groups did after sex discrimination was outlawed by the federal government and by many state laws. Most of the 25 or so state laws against marital status discrimination were passed as a result of lobbying from women's rights advocates in the 1970s and 1980s. Then, groups such as NOW, paid less attention to this issue. Lobbying for laws against marital status discrimination stopped. Now the issue of "marriage equality" is a major issue for LGBT organizations. Many advocates see marriage as the door to equal rights. But what about those adults - gay or straight - who choose to remain single? What about those couples - same-sex or opposite-sex - who prefer cohabitation or domestic partnership to marriage? What about unmarried blood relatives who live together and care for each other and who would not want marriage anyway due to its implication of sexual intimacy? Should all of these "legally single" people be relegated to the back of the civil rights bus? I hope not. It is my wish that women's rights groups, gay and lesbian rights groups, and single's groups, continue to press for equal rights and equal benefits for all people, regardless of their marital status and regardless of whether they are partnered or solo.

3. Bella: In your experience of trying to persuade skeptics of the importance of fair treatment for singles, or accurate perceptions of them, is there any particular example or line of reasoning that seems to be especially effective?
One line of reasoning that seems to resonate is that, on average, a majority of people will spend more years in their adult life being unmarried rather than married. When one adds up the years being single, divorced, or widowed, and compare that with the years of being married, most people will spend a few more years being unmarried. Should their entitlement to equal rights fluctuate with the change in their marital status? Another argument is that marital status is not always a matter of choice. Should someone's auto insurance go up because they ended a disfunctional marriage or because their spouse died? In terms of workplace discrimination, most people believe in the concept of "equal pay for equal work." Then why should a worker's compensation be higher or lower just because of they are married or single? That is what happens in many workplaces when benefits compensation is taken into consideration.

4. Bella: One difficulty I've often encountered is the misperception that if you have a positive message about singles or single life, that necessarily means that you are putting down marriage or traditional family life. Have you run into that, and if so, how have you dealt with it?
People who are against equal rights and who favor preferred treatment for married couples will sometimes distort the message of those advocating for singles' rights or fighting against marital status discrimination. So, yes, I have encountered such false arguments. We are not putting down those who choose traditional family structures. But we are trying to point out that it is no longer tenable to give preferential treatment to one segment of society at the expense of another. Such preference was not so bad when virtually everyone married and had children, as was the case in the 1950s and earlier. But today, unmarried Americans head up the majority of households in the nation. Why should someone who is married, let's say in their fourth marriage, receive more rights and benefits from someone who is a life-long solo single, or someone who is in a long-term unmarried partnership? We are not trying to take anything away from anyone, just trying to show respect for individual rights and for family diversity.

5. Bella: So much of the cultural and political discussion around marital status is about people who are officially married compared to couples who are unmarried - whether same-sex or not. I know that many uncoupled singles feel left out of that conversation, and they find that inappropriate. Is that a tension you've faced? What are your thoughts on creating change on behalf of all legally single people, regardless of whether or not they are socially coupled?
I am a strong advocate for equal rights regardless of whether people are in a sexually intimate relationship, are solo singles, are unmarried blood relatives, or are platonic friends. I am against discrimination against unmarried workers, tenants, consumers, and taxpayers. Unfortunately, marital status discrimination is not against the law in half the states and there is no federal law protecting workers, tenants, or consumers from such discrimination. We have a long way to go to secure such protection. One of the biggest obstacles to having new laws passed is the apathy of most single people with respect ot the issue of equal rights. Singles are not organized like other segments of the population are. So there is little pressure on politicians to pass new laws to protect unmarried people. Much of the impetus for remedial legislation to protect unmarried couples came from LGBT rights activists. Thus the surge in domestic partnership registries and benefits programs in the last two decades. Much of that energy is now focused on "marriage equality" legislation and litigation. Unfortunately, not too many heterosexual singles are devoting time, energy, and money into the cause of singles' rights.

6. Bella: Can you describe an especially positive or memorable experience you've had in your role as a single-minded change agent? It doesn't have to be a big thing - it could be something small but especially meaningful or poignant.
Two examples come to mind. One is when a few of us walked the halls of Congress and delivered materials on equal rights to all 535 congressional offices. Many of the staffers greeted us with enthusiasm saying, "We are so glad to see you. It's about time that single people had a voice in politics." The other example is when I succeeded in getting Business Week magazine to run a cover story entitled "Unmarried America." I knew that high-ranking policy makers - economic and political - would read that eight-page story. They would learn that unmarried people would soon be the majority in terms of households and living arrangements. They would learn about the various aspects of unfair discrimination. Targeting that message to people in power was thrilling to me.

7. Bella: Over time, hundreds (maybe even thousands) of people will read this interview, and many of them care deeply about the topic of living single. I want to offer you the opportunity now to say whatever you'd like to them. It could be a story, an observation, a piece of advice, or anything else at all.
If you are gay or lesbian and are fighting for marriage equality, don't leave unmarried members of the LGBT community behind simply because they don't get married. Don't unwittingly become part of a system that discriminates against couples - gay or straight - who don't marry for whatever reason. If you are gay or lesbian and single, demand that advocacy groups in the LGBT community fight for your rights as a single person or an unmarried couple. If you are heterosexual and single, get involved. Join a group such as the Alternatives to Marriage Project and donate time and money to help fight for single's rights. You cannot afford to sit back and rely on others to fight the good fight on your behalf. You need to become involved. If you are part of NOW, the ACLU, or AARP, communicate with leaders of these organizations to let them know that you want more emphasis placed on ending marital status discrimination.

Bella: Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and for writing your inspiring memoir. Readers who would like to know more about Thomas Coleman and his work can click here and here.

[To read other Living Single posts, click here.]

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