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Heteronormativity and the Federal Tax Code
West Virginia Law Review (1998)
  • Nancy J. Knauer
Proponents of same-sex marriage demand equal marriage rights as a matter of fundamental human dignity and as a means to gain certain legal benefits and protections. The ability to file joint federal income tax returns is invariably listed as one of the benefits associated with marriage. This outsider perspective contradicts the popular notion that the income tax is anti-marriage and offers a useful vantage point from which to analyze the marital provisions of the federal tax code, the treatment of the provisions in tax scholarship, and legislative proposals for "pro-family" tax reform. The joint filing provisions are just one example of a scheme of taxation where considerations of marital status are pervasive. The seemingly discordant marital rules offer a composite picture of marriage as an economic unit, a fundamental unit of society, and an intimate association whose members may not deal with each other at arm's length. To the contrary, same-sex partners always act as strangers under the tax code regardless of the economic or contractual realities of their relationship and regardless of a valid marriage under state law. The exclusion of same-sex couples also carries a symbolic cost. No matter how much taxpayers resent paying tax, the tax code continues to send a strong prescriptive message each year when millions of taxpayers check the appropriate box for their filing status. Your filing status, the way you present yourself and the annual tally of your accomplishments to the state depends, not simply on your marital status, but on the sex of your partner. This Article outlines the heteronormativity of the scholarly debate concerning the choice of the "appropriate" taxable unit and illustrates how pervasive marital status is throughout the tax code by contrasting the marital provisions with the current federal tax treatment of same-sex couples. It presents DOMA and the recent "pro-family" tax reform as prescriptive measures to define family that are grounded in moral judgments informed by religion. A brief conclusion notes that since taxation is indeed political, it makes sense that the battle over the changing face of the American family is being mediated, at least in part, through the tax code.
  • tax policy,
  • marriage penalty,
  • marriage bonus,
  • same-sex marriage,
  • gay marriage,
  • marriage equality,
  • income tax,
  • estate and gift tax,
  • LGBT,
  • gay,
  • lesbian,
  • queer theory,
  • defense of marriage act,
  • DOMA,
  • heteronormativity,
  • joint filing provisions
Publication Date
Citation Information
Nancy J. Knauer. "Heteronormativity and the Federal Tax Code" West Virginia Law Review Vol. 101 (1998)
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