Marisa Kent

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

While the University often cites state law as a reason it cannot provide certain benefits to LGBTQ students and faculty, others say there are ways to circumvent these obstacles.

Mandatory diversity training, gender inclusive housing and same-sex insurance benefits are still not available on campus, much to the frustration of several organizations that have pushed LGBTQ legislation for years. Though LGBTQ-friendly legislation often garners significant student support, it is stopped one step short of implementation, at the UT System Board of Regents or at the Texas Legislature.

UT’s Queer Students Alliance successfully passed legislation through Student Government in support of gender-inclusive housing and same-sex insurance benefits in 2012, but SG resolutions do not have the power to enact change unless they are approved by the regents.

Currently, students are only allowed to live with peers of the same sex on campus, which can make students who identify as transgender uncomfortable, according to Marisa Kent, marketing sophomore and co-director of QSA. The Board of Regents have never approved any resolutions calling for gender-neutral housing, according to UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo. 

Hemlata Jhaveri, director of residence life for the Division of Housing and Food Services, said the division considered implementing a pilot program in Jester, but the floor plans in the residence halls made it impossible because residence halls have 35 to 55 students on one floor and usually have community bathrooms.

Jhaveri said universities that offer this housing do so through apartment style living because up to four students can live together with private bathrooms. 

The University has several apartments in its housing inventory, but none are located on campus. 

As efforts to change regent policy have stalled out, some UT faculty and staff have turned to the state legislature to lobby for LGBTQ-friendly legislation — also without much luck.

Pride and Equity Faculty Staff Association, a university resource group established in 2006 to promote the interests of LGBTQ faculty and staff, has advocated University domestic partner benefits at each legislative session since 2009. Invest in Texas, a lobbying group established by SG and the Senate of College Councils, also includes domestic partner benefits in its platform. 

State Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, has introduced bills to allow Universities to offer domestic partner benefits for the last three legislative sessions and will push for the bill again in January. 

Naishtat said UT’s inability to offer domestic partner benefits means the University is less competitive when attracting and retaining top faculty and staff.

“This bill would help to ensure equity among married and nonmarried faculty and staff of the two systems and would demonstrate strongly that diversity is truly a value of the UT and Texas A&M systems,” Naishtat said. Shane Windmeyer, executive director and co-founder of the national nonprofit Campus Pride, said many universities are able to offer these benefits even when they are in states with constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, similar to Texas’ Defense of Marriage Act. This includes Michigan State University, the University of Florida and Ohio State University.

“Much of the work that happens in conservative areas has to happen under the radar or in partnership with state legislatures,” Windmeyer said.

Karen Landolt, one of the founders of the UT Pride and Equity Faculty Staff Association, helped research peer institutions with domestic partner benefits and said she does not see a pattern between a university’s location and its ability to offer benefits.

“These are not liberal states where those benefits are happening,” Landolt said. “It’s just not happening at UT.”While this legislation for gender-inclusive housing and same-sex insurance benefits, QSA is currently writing student legislation that would require members of student organizations to go through mandatory diversity training, though this legislation would also require regent approval.

According to Kent, diversity training would educate students about the needs and experiences of different minority groups on campus, including students with disabilities and LGBTQ students.

Kent said she hopes the diversity training requirement will not encounter as much resistance on the path to approval as gender-neutral housing resolutions have experienced.

“I think that’s one of the most frustrating parts about this — we get the support of the student body, but once we send it to the Board of Regents, we see a lot of hesitation from them,” she said.

(From left) Maureen Clark, global chair for Against Cruel Trafficking, Reva Davis, Black Student Alliance president, and Heriberto Perez, historian for the University Leadership Initiative all feel the Civil Rights Summit provides an opportunity to talk about rights as they relate to a wide range of groups.

Photo Credit: Pu Ying Huang | Daily Texan Staff

As the University prepares for the Civil Rights Summit, a number of student organizations agree that civil rights — including issues of immigration, LGBTQ rights, human trafficking and equality for African-American students — are still a topic for discussion today.

Heriberto Perez, historian for the University Leadership Initiative and radio-television-film and computer science senior, said he hopes students will consider immigration issues after the three-day-long event, in which Presidents Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush will reflect on the history of civil rights since the Civil Rights Act passed 50 years ago and discuss what can be done to improve the rights of Americans today.

In November, the UT chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas attempted to host a controversial mock immigration “sting” on campus called “Catch an Illegal Immigrant.” The group was going to offer students $25 gift cards if they were able to catch individuals wearing “illegal immigrant” labels on their clothing, but the event was canceled because of the backlash it received.

Perez said he was impressed by the number of students who stepped up to denounce the game but felt that more needed to be done nationwide.

“I’m really hoping that more students realize that, even though we are having the Civil Rights Summit celebrating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that there are still civil rights violations occurring every day,” Perez said.

According to an investigation by The New York Times published Sunday, since Obama took office, two-thirds of the two million deportation cases involve people who had committed minor infractions or had no criminal record at all. Perez said this number was alarming to him and needed to be discussed at the summit.

“President Obama is giving a speech on Thursday, but it’s pretty pointless if he is talking about civil rights but not doing anything about it,” Perez said. “President Obama’s administration deported so many people, and that, to me, is violating their civil rights.”

Marisa Kent, co-director of the Queer Students Alliance and marketing junior, said she was happy with Obama’s support for gay marriage and believes the summit will educate students about gay rights.

“I think we’re at a pivotal moment for the future of the queer movement right now, with a lot of the legislation that has been passed and having the backing of the president,” Kent said.

Kent said the event was a good step forward for students on campus.

“I think that it will open students’ eyes to what’s going on around campus,” Kent said. “It’s also one of those things giving college students access to hear and understand why this is important.”

In December 2013, Obama issued a press release shining the spotlight on human trafficking and promised to crack down on traffickers. Obama also proclaimed January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

Maureen Clark, global chair for Against Cruel Trafficking and government junior, said she saw the fight against human trafficking among Obama, Clinton and Carter and hopes these issues of civil rights will be addressed at the Summit.

“I think, unfortunately, they will be relevant for a very long time, and it’s only when we say they’re not relevant anymore that it gives people room to act in a way that’s not appropriate,” Clark said. “I think we need to keep pushing. The fight is never over.”

Among other student organizations pushing for continuous discussions of civil rights is the Black Student Alliance.

Reva Davis, Black Student Alliance president and African and African diaspora studies senior, said the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act brings the chance to address the racial tensions she has noticed on campus.

In the fall, there were 2,337 black students enrolled at UT out of a total of 52,059 students — or about 4.5 percent — according to the Office of Information Management and Analysis.

“The retention of black students has been somewhat mediocre,” Davis said. “However, the University has promised to uphold its standard of diversity and ensuring its students have the opportunity to learn in a diverse atmosphere.”  

Police arrested Gay Liberation Front members for refusing to vacate the premises in 1972.

Correction: This caption has been updated since its original posting.

Photo Credit: Cactus Yearbook | Daily Texan Staff

While pursuing a psychology degree, Wendell Jones, a member of UT’s first gay student organization, was told by his adviser he should not pursue the degree since being gay made him unfit to give psychological advice to others. 

This type of discrimination led to the formation of the Gay Liberation Front, also known as GLF, UT’s first gay student activist group in early 1970. In addition to protests and rallies, the group hosted the first GLF conference in spring of 1971, which brought together gay liberation groups from across the country.

While composed almost exclusively of UT students, the group was prevented by the University’s policy from meeting on campus or becoming an official student organization. 

“The nation was just in incredible turmoil, but it was also a very exciting time when people were energized and felt that we could really build a better world,” Jones said.

Today, LGBTQ students and their GLF predecessors have different tactics and issues they are fighting for, but their underlying goal of equality has not changed.  

“I think our goals are fundamentally the same as when we started seeing more LGBTQ visiblity on campus,” said Marisa Kent, co-coordinator for UT’s Queer Student Association. “But the one big shift is that we are more accepted on campus.” 

Often faculty and staff members and students were supportive of gay students, but discrimination was common on campus in many forms. According to Randy Conner, UT alum and former GLF member, professors would sometimes alter grades if they discovered a student was homosexual.

“When I wrote an openly gay story, [my professor] totally flipped out and basically told me, after telling me I had great talent, that I had no talent,” Conner said. 

Conner contributed to the group by teaching one of the University’s first LGBTQ literature classes. The course was informal, not for credit and free for all students. 

“They made me call it ‘The Homophile in Literature,’ and no one used that term anymore,” Conner said. “That was a term from the ’50s. It was the only way they allowed me to teach the class.”

When UT did not recognize the group as an official student organization in the spring of 1972, GLF decided to sue the University. They raised money to sue through a school dance, which the then-dean Edward Price canceled at the last minute. Wendell and his peers refused to leave the area in protest and were arrested.

In jail, the police put Jones in a cell with an African-American man and told the stranger he could be violent toward Jones, stereotyping both men in the process. The man told Jones he had a gay brother [and that he] would not harm him.” 

This further opened Jones’ eyes to the connection between all minority groups.

“I began realizing that there were certain common things that homosexuals shared with black people at that time, and my politics started getting much sharper,” Jones said. “I started wanting to work with other groups — not just the anti-war movement and the gay liberation movement — that were trying to create a better world.”

In the spring of 1974, the GLF was finally recognized as an official student organization. But, as the Vietnam War came to an end, the gay rights movement became more conservative — the once-connected movements became isolated, and the group lost momentum. 

In 1976, Jones left UT to study law in California, and Conner graduated with his masters degree in English. 

Current LGBTQ student groups owe their establishment to the efforts of the GLF. 

“They had a hard fight to have the ability to form a group,” Kent said. “I think in that in itself, and what they were working towards, started opening the door for other groups to come in and form organizations based on their LGBTQ status.”

The issue of gay rights in regard to Proposition 8 will be discussed Tuesday, April 8 at 12:35 p.m. for the Civil Rights Summit. 

Members of UT’s Queer Students Alliance are working on legislation with the goal of convincing University administrators to expand health care benefits available for transgender students. 

Legislation author Devon Howard, women’s and gender studies junior, said the ultimate goal of the legislation is expanded medical services for transgender students, including hormonal treatments, gender reassignment surgeries and mental health counseling covered by the University.

“It’s really important that we address the needs of students and what they need to transition to not only feel comfortable with their body, but to be able to function and get a good education at the University,” Howard said. 

According to national nonprofit organization Campus Pride, many of UT’s peer universities, including the University of California system, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign cover hormone and gender reassignment services for students. 

UT does not offer these services because of the expenses associated with specialized medical care, according to Theresa Spalding, medical director for University Health Services. Spalding said the University does offer general medical care for all transgender students, including pap smears for students who identify as male, and said the University is committed to working with transgender students as much as possible.  

“It would be wonderful if we could provide all services to all patients, but we just don’t have the ability to do all that,” Spalding said. “Trying to be as gender neutral as possible is what we try to do.”

Spalding said the University does offer many resources for mental health to all students, including students who may be suffering from depression as a result of the stigmas associated with gender identity issues.

“Mental-health services wise, we have a lot that we offer,” Spalding said.

Currently, the insurance plan available for students to purchase, offered through Blue Cross Blue Shield, meets the minimum essential health requirements of the Affordable Care Act. Insurance coverage for one year is $1,432 per student. 

Adrienne Howarth-Moore, the director of Human Resource Services, said employee healthcare coverage does not include gender reassignment. 

“Certain treatments may be covered if the absence of that treatment would cause a decline in their physical health,” Howarth-Moore said. “Gender reassignment in general is not currently covered because that is currently not considered medically necessary.”

Marisa Kent, co-director of the Queer Students Alliance, said many students do not understand certain transgender students’ desire for sex-related surgeries.

“It’s not something most people can understand,” Kent said. “Nobody really understands the pain and the struggle [of] living in a body they feel like is not even their own.”

Howard said although some students may view gender reassignment surgeries as purely cosmetic, for some transgender individuals, medical intervention is a critical issue.  

“A lot of people see these surgeries as something that is elective and it’s not,” Howard said. “It’s something that needs to be done for survival.”

The alliance already passed a resolution for gender inclusive housing through Student Government, and Kent said she hopes SG members are equally receptive to the transgender health care benefits resolution. 

“We are definitely taking steps in the right direction, but transgender health benefits is our biggest focus,” Kent said. 

Once the resolution is  written, it will be sent to SG for a vote. If the resolution passes, it will be sent to the UT System Board of Regents, who are under no obligation to act.  

“It’s really problematic because we are ranked one of the most liberal and forward-thinking universities in the world, but we don’t have a lot of things other universities have,” Kent said. 

The alliance will hold a town hall meeting Feb. 19 at 6 p.m. in Room 420 in Waggener Hall for students to give their input on the resolution.

Update: This article has been clarified from the original version. Adrienne Howarth-Moore is the director of Human Resource Services, an office under University Operations which deals with employee health benefits.