In what are likely the 13 most-watched minutes of a Fort Worth City Council meeting ever — more than 1.9 million views on YouTube and counting — councilman Joel Burns offers an emotional account of growing up gay and assures others experiencing similar trials that it gets better with age.
The video quickly stood out in an international campaign, spearheaded by columnist Dan Savage, responding to a rash of highly publicized suicides by teens — from 18-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi to a 13-year-old Texan named Asher Brown — who were bullied for being gay or being perceived to be gay.
Advocates and lawmakers who have spent years unsuccessfully pushing to prohibit sexual orientation-based discrimination and to guarantee equal benefits for employees in Texas public schools and universities believe the recent tragedies and subsequent outrage have brought the issue to a tipping point. “It cannot be ignored any longer,” says Chuck Smith, deputy director of the gay and transgender rights advocacy group Equality Texas. “This is not just about gay kids. It’s about any kids who are bullied because they are different.”
At the top of Smith’s legislative agenda is a bill by state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, that would define bullying and cyber-bullying in law and dictate how educational institutions should handle such incidents. Smith also will support a bill that state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, plans to file for the fifth time prohibiting discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation in Texas public schools, though that’s less likely to pass, he says, because it specifies sexual orientation. Coleman says conservative legislators who fear a larger “homosexual agenda” have actively thwarted his past efforts, going so far as to ask for a re-vote when he successfully amended a similar provision onto a bill, which later died.
Brent Connett, a policy analyst for the Texas Conservative Coalition, says his group doesn't comment on legislation before it is filed. But, he says, "As a general rule, we are against creating classes of people." He cites the example of hate crime legislation. "Our view generally is, a murder is a murder is a murder," he says. "It’s equally abhorrent, and we’re against creating special classes for those murders. Same could be applied to bullying. Bullying is a problem that should probably be addressed, but we wouldn't want the underlying causes of the bullying to be considered so much."
Issues with harassment extend to the college level, advocates say. In August, national advocacy organization Campus Pride released the results of a national survey of more than 5,000 university students, faculty, staff and administrators who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. More than a quarter of those surveyed reported personally experiencing harassment. Faculty members reported significantly more negative perceptions of their campus climate than students did.
In the last two sessions, state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, filed a bill seeking to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the categories (race, religion, gender, national origin, age and disability) that Texas employers — schools and universities included — are prohibited from using to discriminate against workers. "The recent cases of bullying and suicide are a tragic reminder that we must communicate unequivocally that all students are welcome on our campuses and that it is unacceptable to pick on people because of their sexual orientation," Villarreal says.
Both times, Villarreal's bill failed to get out of committee. “Too many in the Legislature feel it is not important,” he says.
State Reps. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, and Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi — members of the House Insurance Committee, where a bill to extend health benefits to the domestic partners of faculty and staff of the state's flagship universities found little support — did not return calls for this story. But the platform of the Republican Party of Texas is anything but silent on the issue. "Homosexuality must not be presented as an acceptable 'alternative' lifestyle in our public education and policy," it says. "We are opposed to any granting of special legal entitlements, refuse to recognize, or grant special privileges including, but not limited to: marriage between persons of the same sex (regardless of state of origin), custody of children by homosexuals, homosexual partner insurance or retirement benefits."
University policies vary
More than a quarter-century has passed since a gay student group won a landmark suit against Texas A&M University, establishing the right of such groups to form on college campuses. All these years later, many Texas universities do not expressly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Half of the university systems in the state — the Texas A&M University System, the Texas State University System and the Texas Tech University System — do not include sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination policies. Representatives for the systems correctly note that no federal or state law requires them to do so.
Individual campuses within those systems are allowed to adopt whatever policies they see fit. Though the system was silent one the matter, Texas Tech University expanded its policy to include sexual orientation. Likewise, in 2003, one year after taking the helm of Texas State University, President Denise Trauth added sexual orientation to the school’s nondiscrimination statement. “Not everybody was happy that we added it, but it was something I believed we needed to do,” she says. “I came from a university that had this, and I didn’t know why we didn’t have it, frankly.”
The biggest push for the addition, she says, came from Texas State's faculty senate, whose members believed that the omission of sexual orientation from a policy specifically naming other groups was “a sign of disrespect.”
Some still feel that gender identity should also be added. Currently, the University of Texas and the University of Houston System are the only Texas public institutions that address gender identity. Trauth says Texas State University’s policy prohibiting members of the opposite sex from rooming together complicates the matter. “That doesn’t mean we allow people to discriminate on the basis of gender identity,” she says, asserting that the university does not abide discrimination, even if it’s based on criteria not specified in university policy.
“A policy statement, in and of itself, can’t do much if the culture is in opposition to it,” she says.
Gay partners denied benefits
UT librarian Lindsey Schell, who chairs the domestic partner benefits committee of the UT Pride and Equity Faculty Staff Association, says the school’s nondiscrimination policy statement is “absolutely” being violated. No public university in Texas extends health benefits to unmarried partners, which some say puts the campus culture at odds with the policy statement — even at schools, like UT and Texas A&M, that include sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination policies.
Her group is currently pushing for “soft benefits” — those that don’t come with a price tag attached, the only kind the university controls — like bereavement leave, sick leave, parental leave and on-campus live-in housing for unmarried partners. It’s a push that’s also driven, in part, by tragedy. A lesbian staff member whose partner recently died of pancreatic cancer was unable to take bereavement leave.
UT President William Powers Jr. has expressed his support for the efforts of Schell and her allies. He formed a work group to address the issue, arguing that a lack of domestic partner benefits puts the university at a competitive disadvantage.
Private universities throughout the state — Baylor College of Medicine, Rice University, Southwestern University, Trinity University, and Southern Methodist University — all extend benefits to domestic partners, as do the Ivy League universities and other large state universities like University of Michigan.
Opinions vary on who controls the extension of “hard benefits,” like health insurance, to the domestic partners of university faculty and staff. Some believe university boards of regents could make that call; others believe the state Legislature would have to act. "Current Texas law prohibits a state agency from granting domestic partner benefits," says Matt Flores, assistant director of public affairs for the UT System.
The Texas insurance code defines a dependent as a “legally married spouse.” But the Legislature established insurance policies specifically for the UT and A&M systems in order for them to be competitive with universities in other states, many of which grant domestic partner benefits. In 2009, state Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, filed legislation to allow those benefits to be granted to domestic partners — or, as the bill put it, “qualified other individuals” — of employees at UT and A&M for the sake of keeping up with the policies of peer institutions. “We know that key potential faculty members have refused to accept positions at UT because these benefits aren’t offered,” Naishtat says.
His bill failed to get out of the House Insurance Committee in 2009, but (if it’s determined that a statutory fix is, in fact, needed) it will get another shot in 2011 — though Naishtat acknowledges that the impending budget shortfall may make it a tough sell.
Though these policies don’t always directly impact students, UT Student Government President Scott Parks, an openly gay member of Powers’ work group, says it takes a toll on campus culture. “When faculty and staff are denied benefits,” he says, “that sends a signal to everyone that the university doesn’t value its [gay and transgender] Longhorns as much as everyone else.”