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Hunger Strike for Partner Benefits

January 21, 2008

Today will mark one week that Uri Horesh has gone without food in his quest to pressure the University of Texas at Austin to provide health insurance and other benefits to the partners of gay employees.

Horesh, a lecturer in Arabic, says that the university is violating its own anti-discrimination policy, which states that the institution maintains "a work environment free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation." Horesh said that denying gay people benefits for their partners amounts to discrimination. The university notes that state law -- made more restrictive in recent years as legislators have tried to demonstrate just how opposed they are to gay marriage -- specifically bars state institutions from providing family or spousal benefits to anyone not recognized as a legal spouse or family member in Texas.

That argument is a cop-out, Horesh argues. If Georgetown University, which must contend with Roman Catholic leaders' opposition to gay relationships, can find a way to offer benefits that would help gay couples, so can Texas, he said. Just because legislators would object is no reason for the university to discriminate, he said. "There are laws that promote bigotry, and they may be legal in the books, but they cannot be upheld by any moral standard," he said.

Horesh warned Texas officials about his plans for a hunger strike at the end of the last semester. Last week, he kept up his normal teaching schedule -- three sections of Arabic -- while also attending meetings with university leaders about the policy. He said he is drinking water and taking vitamins but will go without food until he collapses or sees the policy change. He is also applying for jobs elsewhere -- and has one offer from a private liberal arts institution that offers domestic partner benefits. While a gay employee group has been meeting for several years with university officials about these issues, Horesh's hunger strike has attracted considerable attention in Texas newspapers and television stations.

As a single man, Horesh would not benefit in a financial way from the addition of benefits, but he said that the absence of benefits sends a message of inequality to him. And for many gay and lesbian employees at Texas, the lack of benefits does have a direct financial and health impact.

Dana Cloud is among them. She is an associate professor of communication studies and her partner is a Ph.D. student without health insurance. When her partner needed root canal and crowns last year, Cloud and her partner put several thousand dollars of bills on credit cards that they are paying off. Her partner hesitates to go to the doctor unless absolutely necessary.

Via e-mail, Cloud said: "I believe that health care should be universal and not dependent upon one's employment. But so long as it is, you would think that universities, especially those claiming to be top-notch research universities and the flagships of their system, would be leading the way in humane and equal treatment of employees."

Cloud is the faculty co-chair of the Pride and Equity Faculty Staff Association at Texas, a group that is gathering data on the impact of the lack of benefits on the recruitment and retention of gay professors. While Cloud has been involved in such efforts -- which Texas administrators, in response to Horesh's hunger strike, have been praising -- she stressed that such official efforts gained from a campaign like the hunger strike Horesh started.

"I study the history and rhetoric of U.S. social movements, and my personal view is that the more moderate, patient positions need the more radical stances taken by others; that most movements historically have had a left flank that pressures the establishment in ways that official organizations cannot and that gives more moderate forces even greater credibility," she said. "Uri's actions certainly accelerate the political situation and afford us all an opportunity to let the public know about the university's backwardness on this issue."

Linda Millstone, associate vice president for institutional equity and workforce diversity at Texas, said that officials realize the issue is "critical" to some employees, and that the state's ban hurts efforts to recruit some academic talent. But she said that the university must follow state law, and that the law doesn't discriminate in that it applies to unmarried couples who are straight or gay.

Some public universities in states where domestic partner benefits have been challenged have found creative ways to provide help to gay employees' partners. For instance, after a court ruling in Michigan barred domestic partner benefits, Michigan State University and other institutions started benefits for "other eligible individuals" -- a category that extends beyond couples and that appears to avoid the legal issues raised by the court ruling.

Millstone said that the university was looking at what other universities are doing to provide benefits, but she noted that the various laws banning gay marriage are state laws, written in different ways, with the measures in Texas being unusually detailed and restrictive. "It would be naïve to say we could see something in another state and just overlay it in Texas," she said. "We're looking at what other institutions are trying," she said. But she added that it was "premature" to say that the university would be able to change the policy.

And as a public institution, "the university will always be in compliance with the law," Millstone said.

Horesh scoffs at the idea that the university's hands are tied by the law. People and institutions have moral obligations to take stands for ideals, he said. An Israeli, Horesh came to the United States for doctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is A.B.D. Horesh said he has been involved in social movements from a young age, primarily the peace movement in Israel. His Web site features a photo of Horesh with Yasir Arafat. Shifting social movements, he compares Texas officials to those who drove the buses in a segregated Alabama and insisted that Rosa Parks sit in the back. They were following a law that deserved to be violated, Horesh said.

Of the Texas law barring benefits for gay couples, Horesh said: "It's a regressive law. It's a university's role to defy such outdated notions."

 

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