UT benefits from same-sex benefits

Twenty-four hours after polls closed, many consider the election a major victory for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Americans. Wisconsin elected Tammy Baldwin, the nation’s first openly lesbian senator, Maryland and Maine passed laws allowing same-sex marriage and Minnesota struck down a potential state constitutional ban on marriage equality.

Those victories indicate gradual progress on a national scale in the realm of LGBTQ rights, but they seem far removed from Texas. Ted Cruz, who won a seat to represent Texas in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, opposes same-sex marriage and has worked in support of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which denies same-sex married couples federal and interstate recognition. In 2005, Texas voters approved Proposition 2, an amendment to the state constitution that defines marriage as between a man and a woman and prohibits the state from creating or recognizing “any legal status identical or similar to marriage.”

While legislation in favor of gay marriage in Texas is unlikely to pass any time soon, LGBTQ Texans have recently seen reason to hope for increased rights and protections. In May, a federal appeals court struck down the provision of the Defense of Marriage Act that prohibited same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits. State entities in Texas, including the Dallas County Commissioners Court and the Pflugerville Independent School District, responded quickly by extending employee benefits to same-sex couples.

It’s time for UT-Austin to join these entities in providing domestic partner benefits. Currently, partners of UT faculty are entitled to a number of small-scale benefits, including library and Recreational Sports access, but significant benefits like comprehensive medical insurance are not offered. Sick leave, bereavement leave and parental leave are also unavailable to LGBTQ and other partnered (but unmarried) UT faculty or staff.

UT’s Pride and Equity Faculty Staff Association (PEFSA) published a report in 2008 calling for the University to provide benefits to the partners of faculty and staff. Their most compelling argument is that the University is losing a competitive edge because it fails to attract and retain LGBTQ faculty. Keith Walters, former professor of linguistics and Associate Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, shared his experience: “I left UT … because it was made unequivocally clear to me that the UT administration had no interest in finding a way to provide benefits for the partners of lesbian and gay staff and faculty.”

An oft-cited justification for denying domestic partner benefits at UT  is  the need to decrease government expenditures. But PEFSA found that the estimated cost of providing benefits would be 0.58 percent of the current UT budget amount for health insurance expenditures.

UT’s failure is not only in not providing benefits, but also in not upholding a fair workplace atmosphere. Lisa Moore, associate professor of English, explains, “If I let myself think about and feel the homophobia of my very nice, very ordinary academic workplace I couldn’t do this job. I think the psychic burden of that denial is another form of the ‘gay tax.’” Though LGBTQ faculty may not necessarily face a hostile work environment, their denial of benefits is a form of discrimination that has been shown to lower morale.

Julien Carter, Associate Vice President for Human Resources, said, “Pursuing domestic partner benefits not only advantages the GLBT community within UT, but bolsters the hopes and aspirations of all within the University who are allied with the principles of diversity, equity, and fairness. In that regard, progress for one is progress for all.”

By failing on this front, UT loses its competitive edge in the hiring market; eight out of 10 peer public institutions provide domestic partner benefits, as well as all Ivy League universities. UT should join that crowd and get on board with the entire nation’s rising support of LGBTQ rights by offering domestic partner benefits. Our academic reputation depends on it.