LGBTQ-friendly legislation faces barriers at UT System and state legislature

The Daily Texan

While the University often cites state law as a reason it cannot provide certain benefits to LGBTQ students and faculty, others say there are ways to circumvent these obstacles.

Mandatory diversity training, gender inclusive housing and same-sex insurance benefits are still not available on campus, much to the frustration of several organizations that have pushed LGBTQ legislation for years. Though LGBTQ-friendly legislation often garners significant student support, it is stopped one step short of implementation, at the UT System Board of Regents or at the Texas Legislature.

UT’s Queer Students Alliance successfully passed legislation through Student Government in support of gender-inclusive housing and same-sex insurance benefits in 2012, but SG resolutions do not have the power to enact change unless they are approved by the regents.

Currently, students are only allowed to live with peers of the same sex on campus, which can make students who identify as transgender uncomfortable, according to Marisa Kent, marketing sophomore and co-director of QSA. The Board of Regents have never approved any resolutions calling for gender-neutral housing, according to UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo.

Hemlata Jhaveri, director of residence life for the Division of Housing and Food Services, said the division considered implementing a pilot program in Jester, but the floor plans in the residence halls made it impossible because residence halls have 35 to 55 students on one floor and usually have community bathrooms.

Jhaveri said universities that offer this housing do so through apartment style living because up to four students can live together with private bathrooms.

The University has several apartments in its housing inventory, but none are located on campus.

As efforts to change regent policy have stalled out, some UT faculty and staff have turned to the state legislature to lobby for LGBTQ-friendly legislation — also without much luck.

Pride and Equity Faculty Staff Association, a university resource group established in 2006 to promote the interests of LGBTQ faculty and staff, has advocated University domestic partner benefits at each legislative session since 2009. Invest in Texas, a lobbying group established by SG and the Senate of College Councils, also includes domestic partner benefits in its platform.

State Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, has introduced bills to allow Universities to offer domestic partner benefits for the last three legislative sessions and will push for the bill again in January.

Naishtat said UT’s inability to offer domestic partner benefits means the University is less competitive when attracting and retaining top faculty and staff.

“This bill would help to ensure equity among married and nonmarried faculty and staff of the two systems and would demonstrate strongly that diversity is truly a value of the UT and Texas A&M systems,” Naishtat said. Shane Windmeyer, executive director and co-founder of the national nonprofit Campus Pride, said many universities are able to offer these benefits even when they are in states with constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, similar to Texas’ Defense of Marriage Act. This includes Michigan State University, the University of Florida and Ohio State University.

“Much of the work that happens in conservative areas has to happen under the radar or in partnership with state legislatures,” Windmeyer said.

Karen Landolt, one of the founders of the UT Pride and Equity Faculty Staff Association, helped research peer institutions with domestic partner benefits and said she does not see a pattern between a university’s location and its ability to offer benefits.

“These are not liberal states where those benefits are happening,” Landolt said. “It’s just not happening at UT.”While this legislation for gender-inclusive housing and same-sex insurance benefits, QSA is currently writing student legislation that would require members of student organizations to go through mandatory diversity training, though this legislation would also require regent approval.

According to Kent, diversity training would educate students about the needs and experiences of different minority groups on campus, including students with disabilities and LGBTQ students.

Kent said she hopes the diversity training requirement will not encounter as much resistance on the path to approval as gender-neutral housing resolutions have experienced.

“I think that’s one of the most frustrating parts about this — we get the support of the student body, but once we send it to the Board of Regents, we see a lot of hesitation from them,” she said.

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