The last year has seen a backlash against advancing gay rights with numerous states considering or adopting laws or constitutional amendments to restrict marriage and other benefits to male-female couples.
But on college campuses, 2004 saw the continued expansion of benefits and protections for gay employees, according to a report issued Monday by the Human Rights Campaign. The report showed increases in workplace protections in corporate America as well.
According to the report, 551 colleges included sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination policies by last year, up from 456 in 2003, and 379 in 2002. By last year, 289 colleges and universities offered health benefits to domestic partners, up from 267 the year before. In 1991, only one college was known to have offered such benefits.
Daryl Herrschaft, deputy director of the Human Rights Campaign's workplace project, said that he thinks colleges are adding benefits and protection because of the "competition for talent."
"Just like in corporate America, colleges are finding that it is good for workplace productivity," he said.
Herrschaft acknowledged that the colleges offering benefits -- while growing -- are still in the minority. But he said that the vast majority of the most prestigious colleges offer benefits and bar discrimination against gay employees, and he said that he believed other colleges would follow those institutions.
Andy Brantley, the incoming chief executive officer of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, said that the organization strongly favors the adoption of college policies that bar discrimination against gay employees. Brantley, who is associate vice president for human resources at the University of Georgia, said he also favors providing benefits to domestic partners -- and such a proposal recently has been been made at Georgia, and is under consideration by the president there.
The Human Rights Campaign study also looked at policies that bar discrimination based on gender identity or expression. These policies protect transgendered people from bias, and are still relatively rare at colleges and among other employers. The number of colleges with such policies increased to 32 in 2004, up from 7 the year before.
Some colleges are facing pressure on the issue. A former computer programmer is suing Saint Anselm College, charging that she lost her job when she told supervisors she was becoming a woman. (She had been hired and worked successfully at the college as a man.) College officials have not responded in detail to the suit, but have said that they acted legally.
Herrschaft said that he realized many colleges viewed protecting transgendered employees as "a challenge," but he said that it was "not insurmountable."
He predicted that more colleges would follow those that are already banning such discrimination for the same reason more have offered protections for gay employees. "Treating people unfairly for things that have nothing to do with their job performance is not a way to succeed," he said.