Faculty, students march across campus for same-sex partners’ equal benefits

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UT violates its own anti-discrimination policy because of its failure to provide insurance benefits for same-sex partners of faculty and staff, a UT staffer said at a rally on Monday.

The Pride and Equity Faculty Staff Association held signs bearing slogans such as “Gays are family members, too,” “Value all Longhorn families” and “Fall in love with equality” to promote competitive insurance benefits including coverage for same-sex partners for UT faculty and staff.

Students, faculty and staff members spoke before the group of about 60 as they marched to the North Office Building A where faculty and staff attempted to fill out insurance forms for
their partners.

Lindsey Schell, women’s studies librarian and chair of the association’s competitive insurance benefits committee, said the demonstration was meant to point out flaws in the system. Twenty-three faculty and staff members signed up to fill out forms prior to the rally, she said.

All private colleges in Texas including Rice University, Southern Methodist University, Trinity University and Baylor College of Medicine offer competitive insurance benefits for their employees, Schell said.

“It’s very telling that even a school as conservative as Baylor recognizes that in order to keep their medical and dental schools competitive, they need to offer these kinds of benefits,” she said.

The association held a rally in fall 2008 with roughly the same turnout and success but no results, Schell said. UT must begin offering these kinds of benefits to retain GLBT faculty and staff members and keep the competitive edge required of the UT and Texas A&M University systems by state law, she said.

“The real travesty here is that we’re still having rallies about this in 2011,” she said. “With so many factors keeping people from health care, homophobia shouldn’t be one of them.”

UT has to go through the UT System and chancellor to make changes, said Julien Carter, associate vice president for Human Resource Services. After working with system attorneys, UT officials determined the University did not have the authority to offer competitive insurance benefits based on Texas’s Insurance Code, which defines a spouse as a member of the opposite sex, he said.

“This was many, many years ago. Finding authority or changing the interpretation of authority would be helpful with the UT system’s reputation as an employer,” he said. “It’s also a competitiveness issue. I do hope at some point, authority might be provided.”

A small group — formed by President William Powers Jr. that includes Schell and Student Government President Scott Parks — has been working with human resources on other benefits such as leave benefits for GLBT faculty and staff, Carter said.

The loss of queer faculty and staff and the discriminatory campus atmosphere caused by our current policies have huge impacts on student life, Parks said.

“Many people think that this isn’t a student issue because it only applies to faculty and staff,” he said. “I think that’s a narrow way to look at this problem. When our queer faculty and staff are not treated fairly, that sends a signal to everyone, even our queer students, that this is not a safe place to flourish and live proudly, and that’s a huge problem.”

A university such as UT should award domestic partner benefits to staff and faculty, said Sarah Carswell, who graduated from the University of Michigan in 2007 and earned her master’s at UT’s School of Social Work.

“I would actually argue that we should have plus one benefits for all faculty, staff and students on campus,” she said, “But what I’m really fighting for is a more democratically run university, and I think that’s true for a lot of other folks here as well.”