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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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