Georgia State professor advocates for same-sex benefits

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Georgia State professor Todd Henry speaks on the lack of same-sex benefits the institution currently offers. PHOTO BY BRITTANY GUERIN | THE SIGNAL


After 15 years of teaching at Georgia State, astronomy professor Todd Henry said he has faced discrimination at the university because of his sexual orientation.

While other university employees have access to medical benefits for their partners, he does not. This is because his domestic partnership is with a man, a union not legally recognized by the University System of Georgia (USG) and the state of Georgia.

“When all of the colleagues I have on this hallway can get medical coverage for their significant others and I can’t, I don’t know what to call that except discrimination,” Henry said.

University spokeswoman Andrea Jones said administration understands this is an important issue, but Georgia law has their hands tied.

“The university is supportive of measures that would help recruit and retain top faculty and staff,” she said. “As a public university, we comply with current law. “

Georgia State does offer soft benefits to the domestic partners of employees, which include vision, dental, accidental death and dismemberment coverage, according to the Human Resources Employee Benefits Handbook.

This is a partial coverage compared to the full medical benefits offered to opposite-sex married spouses of employees, according to the handbook.

Already frustrated with the issue, Henry said he was further enraged to find that Georgia State now offers health benefits to the pets of its employees.

“The Human Resources Department at Georgia State University has found a way that employees can get a medical plan for their pets,” he said. “But you can’t do it for your partner, and that’s not acceptable.”

Henry also said he thinks administration may not see this as a real problem, but feels that discrimination is always a problem.

There may be a long hierarchy of people who are either over-burdened or think the issue will just go away, according to Henry.

“But I refuse to go away,” he said. “I’m going to keep saying that this is an issue and that this administration has not stepped up to the plate and done the right thing.”

The history of Henry’s advocacy

Henry began fighting for full medical benefits for same sex partners at Georgia State in 2013, after the Supreme Court decision that made the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional.

“The day DOMA was struck down, I said okay, this is the turning point. Something has to happen now,” he said.

Henry, other faculty members and graduate students reached out to various entities of Georgia State administration pushing for the addition of same-sex partner medical benefits.

Henry said concerned parties did not receive the feedback they’d hoped for and were told that offering medical benefits to domestic partners is against the law.

“I gave them a year and nothing still had happened,” he said. With each push for answers, he said he was given the same response:

“The University System of Georgia (USG), provides healthcare plans for employees of the USG, including their spouses and families. In offering these plans, the USG must comply with the laws of the State of Georgia, which recognizes marriage as being between a man and a woman. As part of the USG, Georgia State University’s employees are provided the same healthcare plans that must comply with state law.”

Side stepping Georgia law

Henry and Atlanta-based LGBT advocacy organization Georgia Equality said the Board of Regents is missing a chance to fight laws due to the emphasis placed on marital status.

Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham said several municipalities around the state offer domestic partnership benefits to their employees.

“I think what most of those municipalities have found is that as long as they are offering the same benefits to same-sex and opposite sex couples, they’re not making a distinction between the couples,” he said. “This is actually when they can get around the state constitutional amendment and the state ban on this.”

Henry said he is confused why Georgia State administration can’t take action since they have discussed the addition of medical benefits for domestic partners.

A subcommittee was assigned to investigate associated costs and found financing benefits would be relatively inexpensive, according to Georgia State faculty affairs committee meeting minutes on Nov. 18, 2014.

It would cost “approximately $130,000 per year based on a best estimate, which would be one-half percent of GSU’s health costs overall,” the minutes stated.

Foundation funds, which are not state funded, were suggested but were allocated elsewhere, according to the minutes.

However, the minutes also stated the committee found $1.7 million dollars of unallocated funds. Whether or not these funds were provided by the state wasn’t specified in the minutes.

While this may show signs that administration has plans for benefit implementation in the future, Henry said this is a step the university should have taken a long time ago.

“The university should be leading the charge on these things,” he said. “They are the ones that are supposed to be pushing society forward in a lot of ways. And this university hasn’t.”

How UGA paved the way

Faculty and staff at the University of Georgia (UGA) have also tried to solve the issue since 2012, according to Deirdre Kane, chair of UGA LGBT advocacy organization called GLOBES.

With efforts bolstered by Janet Frick, former chair of the human resources committee of UGA University Council, GLOBE and the council set forth a proposal that pushed for implementation of full medical benefits at their institution.

Kane said they garnered support from faculty, staff, students and administration. However, she said the Board of Regents ultimately denied their proposal.

Kane also said she thinks their efforts failed for two essential reasons. “First, the Georgia state constitution defines spouse/marriage as between a man and a woman,” Kane said. “Second, the Board of Regents self-insures USG employees and could choose to offer benefits to a broader class of individuals, but they choose not to, and follow what the legislature and Constitution define as relationships.”

Statewide status of domestic partnership benefits

Graham said while Georgia State could be another trailblazer on the issue, ultimately the problem is statewide and has to be addressed at the levels of the institution, USG and Georgia overall.

“It’s important across the board—for the university system here in Georgia to be able to attract and retain the best professors,” he said. “So that we do have the best education possible, the university really needs to treat all employees equally.”

Graham also said he commends the efforts of Georgia State thus far, but further progress still needs to be aggressively pursued.

“The university itself, I think has done an admirable job of doing what they feel they can,” he said. “But until all the benefits are the same, the gay and lesbian employees are just going to be treated at a disadvantage.”

What presents further concern is the conflicting message existing between the discrimination policies of universities and the state constitution of Georgia, according to Graham.

“Georgia State, as well as most of the universities within USG, have policies that say employees cannot be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation; and most of them also include gender identity,” he said. “However, it is really hard to enforce those policies when we don’t back that up by law here in Georgia.”

The issue may get resolved later this year as the U.S. Supreme Court plans to hear arguments regarding gay marriage on April 26, according to Henry.

“I think eventually this game is over because the Supreme Court’s going to rule,” Henry said. “And
I believe it’s going to go in the favor of those who want to get married anywhere.”

Regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision, Graham said there are efforts being made at the state level. He mentioned the recent push by two Georgia state representatives for House Bill (HB) 323, which is an amendment to the Fair Employment Practices Act.

“It would protect state employees, including all employees that work for the University System of Georgia, against workplace discrimination,” Graham said.

This type of discrimination includes on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Georgia Voice.

Graham said universities within USG could advocate for HB 323 to show support for on-campus LGBT communities.

“If we actually have people who do work for the state of Georgia and we have institutions like Georgia State University, or the Board of Regents, that add their support to our advocacy efforts, I do believe that we could pass this bill within the next year,” he said.

The truth about faculty benefits

Aaron Prince, chair of Georgia State’s student advocacy organization The Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, said though the topic of debate is USG faculty’s benefits, the issue also affects students.

“It definitely picks apart the possibility of a partnership in the future,” he said. “If we decide to get married and have kids, it would definitely influence it, and maybe make us not want to do it if we aren’t getting any rights or benefits.”

Prince also said the law is discriminatory in more ways than unequal faculty benefits, especially in the case of long-term domestic partnerships.

Prince’s family friend was in a domestic partnership, and unfortunately passed away from AIDS.

While the friend’s parents distanced themselves because of his diagnosis, the two built a life together, according to Prince. When he died, the partner had none of the rights a legally recognized partner would have in the event of a spouse’s death, according to Prince.

“Once he died, his parents were able to come in and take everything they worked for and built,” Prince said. “And this is why we need these laws in place to protect that, because it’s just not right.”

Henry said all people are responsible to push for progress towards gender and sexual equality, regardless of sexual orientation.

“Discrimination is ugly,” he said. “And those who stand by and do nothing when discrimination is happening are no better than those who perpetrate it.”

(Story suggested by: Todd Henry, Astronomy Professor)

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