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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.

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.

David Cameron supports Stonewall anti-bullying campaign

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In a statement to PinkNews.co.uk, David Cameron gave his support to Stonewall’s anti-bullying campaign, saying:

I’m pleased to support Stonewall’s Education for All campaign. November’s anti-bullying week gives us the opportunity to highlight the prevalence of homophobic bullying in our schools and the impact it has on young people’s lives.

More needs to be done to tackle bullying in all its forms and I fully support Stonewall’s campaigning to combat the problem.

He joins Boris Johnson, the Conservative Mayor of London, in supporting the campaign, whose slogan is simply “Some people are gay.  Get over it!”

On top of this, the Tories just ran an out-lesbian in the Glasgow North East   by-election, and in July David Cameron apologised for the Tory role in passing and maintaining Section 28.  And true, not a single Tory voted to eliminate the House of Lords amendment to Clause 61 of the Coroners and Justice Bill, which read

For the avoidance of doubt, the discussion or criticism of sexual conductor practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred.

But, as a gay  man, I am proud the Tories stood up–not against gay people, but for freedom of speech.

The fact is, the Tories have changed.  They’re no longer the party they were 20, 10, or even 5 years ago.  LGBT Britons concerned with the economy, crime, Afghanistan, and corruption in Westminster should seriously consider voting Conservative at the next election.  Don’t buy into the old adage that Tories are homophobic.  This isn’t 1988.