Family Leave Needs To Be Bigger, Broader, And Gayer

I remember my mornings before kindergarten class and how much I enjoyed the time being at home and relaxing. My mother would make me a quick lunch, which I ate while watching The Puzzle Place on PBS, before she would drive me to school.

My mother chose to stay home with me and my older sister to raise us while my dad worked full-time until we were both in elementary school. She then returned to work part-time at a senior citizens’ home and then eventually got a job working in our school’s cafeteria.

But that was a long time ago when a family could live off of one salary, when childcare wouldn’t cost you your first born, when POGS and crimped hair were cool.

It was also when gay families and the LGBT community in general were beginning to fight their way out of the margins of society into which they were shoved.

But the times are changing. And family leave needs to catch up.

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I took for granted the experience I had with my mother staying home and waiting a few years to return to work. I never really had to think twice about it, and I never even thanked her for it. (I am thanking you now, Mom!)

But as I get older, I see my friends and family members having children and being forced to drain their resources to afford childcare. It’s forcing me to wake up to the hardships that so many people face and the sacrifices so many must make as a result of an inadequate system.

And as a gay person, I can’t help but think about the possibility of one day needing or wanting to provide care for one of my precious chosen family members.

The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) was signed to “help working parents and other caregivers balance work and family.” Of course, its definition of “family” is very narrow, and although last summer’s Supreme Court decision ruling in favor of marriage equality solidified the right of workers to take leave (unpaid, of course) in order to care for a same-sex spouse, there are still many folks left out of the FMLA.

What’s great about generations like mine is that we are helping lead the way towards the acceptance of broader definitions of identity across the board. Young LGBT people like me are also redefining what it means to be “family.” Many of us have been rejected by our biological parents and have had to seek comfort and care elsewhere. And in many cases, these chosen family members love us more than our blood relatives ever could.

We find mothers in older lesbians in the community, we find brothers in fellow gay men in the community, we find sisters and fathers and so much more.

Yet if my friend, who I define as family, falls ill and has no one else in their life to help them, I am vulnerable at work if I choose to leave for a while in order to provide care. If someone I know is transgender and needs help recuperating after gender reassignment surgery, my job is legally not protected if I choose to take care of my beloved friend who has no blood relatives to step up.

And the issue of expanding the definition of “family” isn’t just a gay issue.

If my niece is in an accident, God forbid, and my sister and brother-in-law are desperate for an extra hand to help with her recovery, I am not permitted to do so without my job being at risk or my finances being in jeopardy.

Domestic partners, yes even straight ones, are also not covered federally under the FMLA. To couples who choose not to pursue what society views as traditional “marriage,” this deals a major blow. I cannot imagine the helplessness I would feel if my ill partner or friend or aunt was forced to go without care, or was subjected to sub-par care, because the law doesn’t value our relationship as much as the conventional “spouse-spouse” or “parent-child.”

The FMLA was a start. But it sure as hell isn’t a cure-all. It’s barely a band-aid.

So what do we need to do?

We need to recognize that marriage equality was only the beginning. Those of us who are fighting to change perceptions of the LGBT community need to use that passion to take up this fight for improved family and medical leave. It affects us, it affects our loved ones, and it affects the advancement of our society as a whole.

We must continue challenging our policy makers to step up and catch up to the 21st century. This country is made up of so many diverse, beautiful, hard-working people, and every single one of them deserves to be treated with dignity.

We need to force legislators and employers to look at things differently and with a wider lens. We need to consider allowing employees to work remotely from home, allowing them to make schedules that work for them, and allowing people to take leave to care for the person they love, regardless of the type of tie that bonds them.

We need to collectively organize and vote for progressive candidates who will work to expand the legal definitions of family within the FMLA for everyone and advocate for paid, not unpaid, leave. 

We need to push the government and businesses to value the time and the lives and the families of every worker, whether they are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a fast-food worker who sweats bullets in a hot kitchen all day. Family leave shouldn’t just be for white-collar workers. Every single worker who grinds day in and day out to put food on their table deserves paid family and medical leave.

These are vows we must make to each other ― for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health.

And, most importantly, in love.

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