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Equal Benefits for Equal Work: In Support of Domestic Partner Benefits at Western Kentucky University

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Last semester, I was walking up Normal Drive from Mass Media and Technology Hall. A pickup truck full of young men—presumably students—drove by and yelled “faggot” as they passed. I felt humiliated, I felt scared, I felt hurt. But most of all, I felt angry. Homophobia, I’d always been told, had no place on the Hill. This incident proved otherwise.

Last week, the Benefits Committee again showed an ugly homophobia is alive on campus. While they didn’t call us fags to our faces, they did tell gay and lesbian employees and students that we are not seen as equal to our heterosexual colleagues. In a vote of eight to six, the Benefits Committee refused to offer domestic partner benefits to same-sex and opposite-sex unmarried couples.

“But Skylar,” you might say, “if it applies to both gay and straight people, it isn’t homophobic!” This is nothing more than a convenient argument used over and over against offering domestic partner benefits. Lesbian and gay employees can’t be married in Kentucky, so they are unfairly left out of any opportunity to ever have benefits. Besides, even if you don’t think the decision was homophobic, the decision is clearly unfair, as not all employees are granted equal benefits for equal work.

That phrase, “equal benefits for equal work,” is one I used when I first took up this cause last year. In the spring of 2009, as student body vice president, I authored a piece of legislation encouraging WKU to offer domestic partner benefits to unmarried same-sex and opposite-sex couples. I did this out of a desire to achieve a more fair and just university, and the Student Senate agreed—the resolution passed with overwhelming support. Not long after, University Senate passed a similar resolution with similar zeal.

Yet here we are, a year later, and nothing has changed. Not all employees have the same benefits as their colleagues. Unmarried employees who happen to be in long-term relationships but, because either they choose not to or cannot, be married are ineligible to receive the same benefits. This is blatant discrimination and is totally unfair.

And it’s not only unfair to the employees who can’t cover their families. It’s unfair to the university as a whole, including the student body. Not only does it send a message to the world that Hilltoppers are content to discriminate against other Hilltoppers, including students, but it severely hinders our ability to recruit the best and brightest in the respective disciplines. Why would an enlightened genius want to come work at a university that can’t even grasp the kindergarten concept of playing fairly?

Study after study has shown that offering domestic partner benefits is beneficial to recruiting the best employees possible while costing very little to implement. Private sector employers, including a whopping 83% of Fortune 100 companies, offer domestic partner benefits, many of which have offered them since the 1990s or early 2000s. Closer to home, the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville have found ways to offer domestic partner benefits to their employees, despite Kentucky’s repugnant constitutional amendment banning gay marriage (or any recognition of gay couples at all). In the interest of keeping up with the Jones’, we ought to adopt domestic partner benefits, if only to thumb our noses at the other schools.

But if fairness and superiority aren’t reason enough, let’s pull in another controversial issue: health care. No matter which side of the debate you’re on, I hope you’ll agree every American deserves access to health insurance. While many Americans are covered by their spouse’s employer, unmarried partners of Western employees aren’t eligible. According to a study by UCLA’s Williams Institute, “[p]eople with same-sex or different-sex unmarried partners are two to three times more likely to be uninsured than married people, even after controlling for factors influencing coverage.”

The number of uninsured Americans is outrageous, and employers offering domestic partner benefits is one way to drastically drop the number of uninsured. (This should also make you Tea Partiers out there happy, as the federal government is not involved in the least. See, equality can be a conservative issue, too!)

Furthermore, the cost of actually extending benefits at Western would be small, especially when compared to the cost of, say, Chauncey the Bunny or the big red “key” perched on Centennial Mall. According to the Williams Institute, employers offering domestic partner benefits can expect to see a 1.4% to 2.1% increase in employees signing up, which is nary an increase in the number we’re insuring or the cost of insuring them. Those who say cost is a factor are blatantly lying at worst and patently wrong at best.

Whether they’re lying to hide their homophobia or just ignorant to the facts, I can’t be sure. But it is my hope that the eight people on the Benefits Committee will start thinking progressively, or at least contemporarily. This is an issue of fairness, plain and simple. Other universities in Kentucky are already ahead of us on this, and it is time for Western to catch up with the rest of the crowd.

Better that crowd than the crowd that called me a faggot. Western shouldn’t want to be associated with homophobia. When those guys yelled that slur at me, I felt a lot of things, but the Benefits Committee has made me feel something entirely different: ashamed. I’m ashamed that a committee I’ve supported doesn’t support me. I’m ashamed that ignorance and fear have been allowed to prevail. I’m ashamed that inequality and discrimination are rife on this campus.

But most of all, and I never thought this would happen, I am ashamed to be a Hilltopper.

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Freedom of religion is a right; freedom to discriminate is not

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The Court of Appeals is expected to rule on the Lillian Ladele case before Christmas.  Ladele, 47, filed a complaint against the Islington Council, where she worked as a registrar, claiming she was harassed and treated unfairly, ultimately threatened with termination, because her conservative Christian beliefs prevented her from officiating over same-sex civil partnership ceremonies.  Ladele claims such unions are “contrary to God’s law.”

Lillian Ladele, a registrar for the Islington Council and an orthodox Christian, claims to have been discriminated against because her religious views prevented her from performing same-sex civil partnerships

This comes on the heels of Norwich grandmother Pauline Howe’s investigation by local police after writing a letter to her local authority complaining about a gay pride parade, in which she referred to homosexuals as “sodomites.”  And less than a month since a record number of complaints were filed with the Press Complaints Commission against Jan Moir for her now-infamous column questioning whether Stephen Gately died from homosexuality.  And the day after the Government failed to overturn an amendment to a clause in the Coroners and Justice Bill protecting freedom of speech for those who criticise homosexuality based on religious or moral objections.

That the amendment was included in the Coroners and Justice Bill is a good thing, as it protects freedom of speech, that most basic of democratic liberties.  Jan Moir, though utterly offensive and wrong, had every right to express her views, and The Daily Mail had every right to publish her column.  And yes, Pauline Howe has a right to stand on a street corner calling homosexuals “sodomites” and blaming them for every problem Britain faces from a stagnant economy to Jedward.  Both Moir and Howe are well within their rights.

Which is more than I can say for Lillian Ladele. Ladele was not told she could be disciplined or fired because of her beliefs, which she has every right to hold and express. Rather, Ladele was told her employment could be terminated because she allowed those beliefs to interfere with her job. Ladele isn’t complaining that she was discriminated against based on her beliefs—she’s complaining that she isn’t allowed to discriminate against others based on those beliefs.

Everybody has their biases. We are all prejudiced against one group or another. However, this does not make it okay to discriminate against said group. The law should—and does—protect Lillian Ladele’s right to say, feel, think, and profess whatever she wants. Nobody is telling Lillian Ladele that she can’t be a Christian, or that she cannot work for the Islington Council because of her beliefs. What the Islington Council is maintaining—and rightly so—is that she cannot use her beliefs to deny equal access to government services, or to shirk her job responsibilities.

Ladele’s refusal to marry same-sex partners brings to mind another case that made headlines here in the States recently. An interracial Louisiana couple was refused a marriage license by a justice of the peace because he did not personally condone such marriages. He was allowed to keep his job (though Louisiana did look into ways to remove him), but resigned under pressure in the end. And rightly so; his personal views prevented him from doing his job, for which he earned a salary paid by taxpayers of all races.

Imagine, if you will, a gay registrar refusing to marry a heterosexual Christian couple because he disagrees with their beliefs. He finds their religion to be fundamentally flawed and the greatest of human evils. Should he be allowed to discriminate against them because of his beliefs? Nobody would argue he cannot hold said belief, but to allow him to deny a marriage license to any couple because of those beliefs would invoke the ire of the Christian Institute and every other right-wing organisation in Britain.

Lillian Ladele works a job that requires her to uphold the law, regardless of whether she agrees with it or not. She isn’t fighting for her freedom of religion but for her freedom to discriminate. Ms Ladele has every right to hold whatever views she will about homosexuality, but when those views lead to discrimination in public services a line must be drawn. Lillian Leades has every right to her opinion, and she ought never to fear the repercussions of speaking it publicly. But when those opinions lead to direct discrimination against other Britons, she has crossed the line.
It is not discrimination if you are fired for discrimination.

Why the National Equality March was a success

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By the time I got home Monday morning, I was totally exhausted, having driven the nearly 700 miles from DC back to BG the night before.  However, the sheer magic of the day before was still with me, and I couldn’t help but forget how I had felt looking up at the flag flying over Capitol Hill.  “This,” I thought, “is America.”  Looking around me, I saw people of all races, all ethnicities—men and women from all 50 states marching together in the name of equality.  That was the magic and beauty of Sunday’s National Equality March.

That’s a nice feeling to have, considering I was skeptical, to say the least, when the march was first proposed by David Mixner and Cleve Jones back in May.  Don’t get me wrong, I love big dramatic displays, and this march certainly had all the pageantry one could hope for.  But I didn’t think it was necessarily pragmatic.  Would they come?  Sure.  I mean, Mixner and Jones are the closest our movement has to elder statesmen, and the youth (myself included) were and are restless with the lack of progress being made, our passions being ignited or reignited following Prop 8.  But was a massive march on Washington really going to make a political or strategic difference?equality

In reflecting on the weekend, the short answer is “no.”  Congress wasn’t in session, they’re preoccupied with healthcare reform, and President Obama, while giving a lovely speech to the Human Rights Campaign on Saturday, still hasn’t acted on any of his promises and refuses to lay out a timeline for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, among other issues.  Yes, the Matthew Shepherd Act has inched closer to passage, and while welcome news, it is more an attempt to placate LGBT activists than anything.

Still, the march was a success.  Even if it doesn’t have direct political or legal implications for the gay community, it still did one important thing: it motivated and inspired millions.  Many of us, though passionate about the movement, have been pretty discouraged.  How could we not?  Marriage amendments in 37 states, including California thanks to Prop 8; no federal employment nondiscrimination law; violence and harassment in schools and workplaces; and no organized, cohesive movement pushing to change this.  We’ve seen our supposed leaders bickering over semantics and tactics and even duking it out for credit and glory, all the while forgetting this new generation.

I’ve been actively involved in the struggle for LGBT equality since 2004, when Kentucky passed its odious anti-marriage amendment.  Soon after, the gay movement in Kentucky fell apart, to put it nicely.  The leadership began shirking their responsibilities and a bunch of college students, including myself, really took up the mantle of leadership.  When Jason Johnson was expelled for being gay by the University of the Cumberlands in 2006, it was the Kentucky Collegiate Coalition, led by students from all over Kentucky, which took up the cause and staged the protest.  It was KCC that had conference calls in consultation with GLAAD.  Yes, the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, our statewide equality lobby, sprung for hotel rooms and “officially” cosponsored the rally with us, but it was Kentucky college students that led the movement against the University of the Cumberlands receiving public funds.

But eventually, we got burned out.  With no real support coming from the national organizations, which seemed unable to be bothered with a flyover state, and with our state organizations disintegrating into bickering and catty gay drama, the college students didn’t know where to go.  I’ll be the first to say that at 20 years old I was not prepared to be one of the statewide gay leaders.  The pressure got too much, and many of us simply moved on to other projects.  We lost a lot of bright young gay people to the environmental lobby, education lobby, and other progressive causes.  That’s not to diminish the importance of these other causes, but we need our best and brightest working for our equality, too.

The burnout experienced by many of us from 2004-2006 was replaced by rage and resolve after Prop 8.  We were aching for a way to involve ourselves, to be proactive, and to take this fight “out of the bars and into the streets.”  Prop 8 was a poorly run campaign, and the state leaders in California hardly deserve to be labeled as such.  The same seems to be true for most states.  The national organizations, on the other hand, took far too cautious an approach.  Perhaps they’ve been inside the beltway too long, but they are much more interested in playing the political game in DC than doing much of anything on the ground in a state like Washington, Maine, and certainly not Kentucky.

My generation—the Millennials—are a generation of “now.”  We’re not used to waiting.  If I want to know what my best friend is doing, I’ll text her.  If I want to hear Leona Lewis’s new song, I can download it on iTunes without leaving my bedroom.  If I want to read the latest news on Darfur, there are countless websites with endless updates.  We want things when we want them, and in our minds, patience isn’t a virtue—it’s unnecessary.

HRC, GLAAD, and the countless other organizations don’t seem to get this.  They counsel patience—patience with state laws, patience with Congress, patience with President Obama.  But patience isn’t a virtue learned by my generation, and in this case, it serves us well.  For we can ill afford to be patient any longer.  Not when our brothers and sisters are suffering.  Not when we are suffering.

Prop 8 woke up the gay community, especially Millennials, to the reality that equality doesn’t just happen.  We’re going to have to fight for it.  I think that was the point of the National Equality March.  It was to show the world that we’ve been awakened.  We get it now.

rainbow I’ve heard it said that this weekend was the passing of the torch.  The old guard has handed off the reins of the movement to a new generation of leaders, in our 20s and 30s, who are going to now do things our way.  I don’t know if this will happen right away, but I definitely think my generation is going to demand more of a presence at the table.  We want our voices heard, and our elders are going to have to listen.  Whether they will do this willingly is yet to be known.
What I do know, though, is what was evident in the eyes of the young college students I traveled with.  Yes, they went for Lady Gaga.  Yes, they went to be a part of history.  But something happened while they were there.  I saw in them an awakening, an understanding, a deeply personal connection forged to their cause and their identity.  I saw the tenacity of their convictions in their eyes, heard the resolve of their commitments in their chants, and felt their deepened understanding of the stakes and the movement.  They get it.

This is why the National Equality March was a success.  For the first time, the Millennials were given an avenue to show what they have to offer our movement, and I have to say, we showed everyone else up.  Where the national leaders have been content to wait, the Millennials descended on DC to show that we will wait no longer.  It’s not our forte.  We don’t even like to wait for espresso, so why would we wait for equality?  It’s true that the march may not change the hearts and minds of politicians.  But it did something just as important: it opened and inspired the hearts and minds of LGBT youth.

Written by skylarjordan

October 13, 2009 at 5:25 pm