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Long-Fought Win for Gay Rights

September 18, 2006

Missouri State University's board on Friday added sexual orientation to the list of factors on which the institution barred bias. The 5-3 vote followed debate that included denunciations of the gay "sexual lifestyle" and years of intense discussion of the issue.

Missouri State's board -- pushed by the university's former president -- had for years rejected the idea that the university needed to protect its gay students and employees from discrimination. And the board did not act even when a letter from the former president surfaced in which he called homosexuality a "biological perversion."

With Friday's vote, Missouri State joins hundreds of colleges -- 562 according to the latest study by the Human Rights Campaign -- that bar bias based on sexual orientation. That group includes Missouri's flagship, the University of Missouri at Columbia.

University officials announced that they weren't changing the policy -- just clarifying it, apparently in reference to past statements where they said gay students and employees were covered by the policy even without a specific reference. And the university also added provisions, apparently designed to fend off conservative criticism of its move, specifying that the new provision couldn't be used to question the policies of religious or military groups. That tactic didn't work, and the governor promptly criticized the board for giving in to "forces of political correctness."

The policy on which Missouri State's board voted Friday is its basic non-discrimination statement, which includes a broad pledge that the university doesn't consider "any basis" not related to educational requirements or job qualifications when evaluating students or employees. But the policy also includes a list of specific grounds on which the university wouldn't discriminate: race, color, religion, sex, national origin, ancestry, age, disability, and veteran status.

On Friday, the university added sexual orientation to that list, and also added political affiliation. In addition, Missouri State added a sentence saying: "This policy shall not be interpreted in a manner as to violate the legal rights of religious organizations or military organizations associated with the Armed Forces of the United States of America." On some colleges, gay students have challenged religious or military groups that discriminate against gay people.

Missouri State's action followed more than a decade of fighting on the issue. Missouri State's new president, Michael T. Nietzel, endorsed the move.

Mark Richter, chair of the Faculty Senate and a professor of chemistry at Missouri State, said that professors had overwhelmingly approved measures two years ago and four years ago to call for the anti-bias policy to explicitly cover gay students and faculty members. Richter said that faculty sentiment remains strongly behind the move to expand the non-discrimination policy.

But John Keiser, who was president from 1993 to 2005, had repeatedly opposed the change, saying that it wasn't necessary and that discrimination on the campus was not a problem. That stance became particularly hard for student and faculty leaders to accept when The Springfield News-Leader in 2004 printed a letter Keiser had sent an alumnus in 1995, saying that homosexuality is a "biological perversion," and adding that he has "always believed that homosexual or lesbian acts are intrinsically disordered, contrary to natural law, and cannot be approved." After the letter was published, Keiser said that it reflected views based on his Roman Catholic faith and did not suggest any need for the anti-bias policy to protect gay people. Gay leaders called the letter a "smoking gun" showing why explicit protection was needed.

The former president's statement created "a climate of fear" for gay and lesbian faculty members, said Holly A. Baggett, associate professor of history and president of the Lambda Alliance, the organization of gay faculty and staff members. "It was a very oppressive atmosphere to have the president say that," said Baggett. While she said that there are many gay people working at Missouri State, "most stayed closeted, for fear that they could be hurt in tenure and promotion."

She praised Nietzel, the new president, for having "a more sophisticated outlook," and said that officials realized that if they wanted to recruit the best faculty talent, they needed to get past this issue. "This was an embarrassment," she said.

Some conservative politicians in Missouri immediately denounced the university's shift on Friday. Gov. Matt Blunt issued a statement in which he said that Missouri State's "ever-increasing enrollment is proof that a diverse student body feels welcome on campus," adding that the change was "unnecessary and bad."

Will Hader, co-president of the Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Alliance at Missouri State, said that the policy shift was needed. A senior from Kansas City, Hader said that most students and professors were supportive, but that the surrounding community was not. He also said that the former president's comments showed why specific protection was needed, saying that it sent a very powerful message to students to learn that their institution's leader held "such archaic views."

The criticism from the governor is to be expected, Hader said, adding that he and other students were thrilled by the board's action. "After so many years of fighting, it's absolutely excellent."

 

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