Imagine that you are looking for a job. Imagine that you are good at what you do, and you have a choice of opportunities. Imagine being offered jobs that were comparable in almost every way, but located in different states.
In one state, you and your spouse would be able to use a family health insurance plan, visit each other in the hospital, and have a relationship and family that was legally recognized. In the other state, your spouse would have to buy separate health insurance, and there would be no guarantee that doctors, hospitals, lawyers, banks, schools, or anyone at all would recognize your relationship or family.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone would select the second option. And yet, states seem to be lining up to become the next to do away with any recognition of, or benefits for, same-sex relationships. It will be difficult to track the economic impact of these new laws. Some gay and lesbian faculty members will stay put, either because of limited opportunities elsewhere or because of their roots in their communities. But there are also academics who will vote with their feet, and leave institutions in such states.
I left a state that did not recognize my relationship in favor of one that did. I was hired as an assistant professor of biology by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 2001. Although I knew that Virginia was a conservative state, I found the department to be very friendly and supportive. Colleagues were welcoming toward my partner, and we enjoyed living in the area.
I believe that I contributed substantially to teaching, research and grant funding during my time at Virginia Tech. In three years, I taught hundreds of students, involved over 40 undergraduates in research, and was awarded over a half million dollars in competitive grants from the National Science Foundation. Most of these funds went toward hiring and training undergraduate and graduate students in Virginia.
During those three years, however, my partner and I paid thousands of dollars for private health insurance when my partner was working part time, because she could not get those benefits through me. We did all we legally could to provide ourselves with the rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples, including the right to visit each other in the hospital and make medical decisions for each other. But we wanted to have a family, and in Virginia we could not both be legally recognized as parents of our future children.
Because it seemed clear that laws of Virginia were not going to change in any way beneficial to us in the near future, I went on the job market in 2004. I was offered an exciting position at a university in Massachusetts, which had just become the first state where same-sex couples could get married. By contrast, around the same time the Virginia legislature passed the "Marriage Affirmation Act." This bill outlawed any same-sex "partnership contract or other arrangements that purport to provide the benefits of marriage." Under some interpretations, this law negated the medical powers of attorney we had obtained to guarantee hospital visitation in case of emergencies.
Virginia Tech attempted to retain me in my position with a counter offer, and my partner and I had several discussions about what it would take to convince us to stay. In the end, we concluded that no amount of salary, extra funds, or other benefits would counteract the risk that our relationship might not be recognized in a time of crisis. While some businesses, schools or hospitals might acknowledge our relationship, we were not willing to risk that they would not. If they did not, the laws of Virginia would support them.
When I announced my departure, I received an e-mail from an administrator who told me that others had left for similar reasons, but had done so quietly. I spoke out about why I was leaving, and I'm writing this article because I believe it's important for educators and politicians to understand that discriminatory laws have a price.
My partner and I moved to Massachusetts and promptly married. Naturally, I have moved my research and whatever funding could be transferred to my new institution, and I am building a federally funded program in my new home. In my first six months, I've brought in more than $150,000 in competitive national grants.
Our primary reason for leaving Virginia was to gain the rights that come from legal recognition of our relationship and future family. It is clear that we would not obtain those rights in the near future in Virginia. States that choose to discriminate against their same-sex couples will continue to lose valued citizens to states that provide the same rights to all individuals, couples and families.