The 31 year-old case of two spinster sisters, Joyce and Sybil Burden, in the UK is about to head to the European Court of Human Rights, and it is receiving considerable attention in the British press because of its peculiar fact-set. Specifically, the two sisters (who have interlocking wills) are facing a huge estate tax bill whenever the first of them dies. This because though UK law (like the U.S.) exempts married couples from this tax, and also (unlike the U.S.) grants the same benefit to gay and lesbian partners, the exemption does not apply to other committed relationships, such as two sisters who have lived as consanguinial couple for decades.
The issue before the court? Discrimination against heterosexuals. This alone will ensure that this case gains considerable attention from a titillated press, but in all the excitement, observers are likely to miss the most important implication of the case. Namely, that the hidden stakeholders in the domestic partnership/gay marriage debate are the many people who live in committed, non-sexual relationships: brothers, sisters, widows life-long friendsliving together. These are relationships that are not recognized by any legal bond, but they are every bit as committed and long-lasting as the stereotypical image of traditional marriage.
Every first year law student learns that the law “loves little old ladies,” and thus it is a cinch that the Burden sisters will win. And perhaps the attention the case gets will wake up others here in the US who find themselves in the same situation. Eventually this invisible population of non-traditional committeds begin to very visibly demand their rights. Though the Burden sisters claim heterosexual discrimination, events will unfold rather differently here. The pressure for equitable treatment of couples like the Burden sisters will be irresistable, and legislation will be passed. But there will be no way for even the most determined homophobic legislator to gerrymander the right so that gays are excluded while grannies get the benefit. Because the law loves little old ladies, the plight of these grannies could be part of the wedge that opens the door to expansion of civil unions — and ultimately marriage — for gay couples.