Lindsey Schell

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.”

Advocates of equal benefits for GLBT faculty and staff won two victories this semester, as the UT Human Resource Services department and the Division of Housing and Food Service are each reviewing policies in an effort to increase access for GLBT employees and their partners.

The Office of Legal Affairs is considering changes to the University’s emergency leave policies, which currently limit bereavement, sick and parental leave to employees with heterosexual spouses. Human resources is looking to expand the reach of leave benefits, said Human Resource Services associate vice president Julien Carter.

“These programs are safety net programs to support employees with family problems, and that shouldn’t stop with a marriage certificate,” Carter said. “These safety net programs need to be expanded to cover modern definitions of what a family is. It comes down to issues of fairness and equity.”

In addition, DHFS administrators are changing their regulations to allow hall coordinators, who oversee all employees and activities of campus residence halls, to have any additional person as a roommate, including a same-sex partner. DHFS executive director Floyd Hoelting said the division talked about changing this policy when he started at the University 15 years ago, and he is excited to see the new policy coming to fruition.

“We want to make it more inclusive so everyone benefits,” Hoelting said. “A live-in staff person has a tough job — the residence hall is their home, it’s their office, they’re on call all the time. Other than a background check for anyone that lives here, we shouldn’t be telling them what kind of guest they can have.”

The changes address what many GLBT employees and gay rights supporters call soft benefits — policy changes the University can make internally without going through the Board of Regents or the state Legislature. UT President William Powers Jr. created a task force this fall to help plan long-term goals to address other soft benefits, GLBT faculty needs and competitive insurance benefits, which would allow UT employees to provide insurance to a same-sex partner — rather than just a spouse.

The task force includes Marc Musick, an associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts; Lindsey Schell, a member of the Pride and Equity Faculty and Staff Association; and Student Government President Scott Parks, who is gay. They said that in addition to the two policy changes underway, they hope to work for increased access for transgender students as well as competitive insurance benefits, also called domestic partner benefits.

“We’ve received a lot of support from other organizations, like staff and faculty council and Student Government,” Schell said. “There is a clear and obvious statement from the campus community that these are policies we would like to see move forward, that they are in line with the campus attitude and the expectations for what UT should offer its employees.”

Schell and Parks both said the support of Powers and other administrators and the creation of the task force gives traction to ideas that UT community members have discussed for many years.

“Since the founding of this task force, there has been a lot more institutional energy in getting these things moving,” Parks said. “It’s been great having the president’s office and these other people helping us.”