As Mississippi State University considers joining the wave of universities now offering domestic partnership benefits to employees, UT remains resistant.
On Jan. 17, Ravi Perry, assistant professor of political science at MSU, sent a letter to the president of Faculty Senate, Gerald Emison, requesting a correction in human relations policies which contradict the university's nondiscrimination policy.
In his letter, Perry stated that "although the Mississippi State University's non-discrimination policy includes the protected class of sexual orientation, there is no access to health care benefits when persons identified under that protected class seek to secure said benefits."
By accepting his position at MSU in 2012, Perry and his spouse lost the full benefits offered at his former university, which included health insurance.
On March 14, U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger ordered Tennessee state officials to recognize the marriages of three same-sex couples married out of state, including two lesbian professors in the UT Institute of Agriculture's College of Veterinary Medicine.
The decision, however, affects only the three couples suing for recognition, not the state as a whole. The statewide interpretation of marriage will remain the same.
Benefits denied to same-sex couples include, but are not limited to, the ability to take a leave of absence in the wake of a partner's illness or death, receive discounted tuition for a partner's enrollment at UT and place an employee's partner on their health insurance plan covered by the university.
Donna Braquet, director of the OUTreach: LGBT & Ally Resource Center and special assistant to the vice chancellor for Diversity, has been working to promote domestic partnership benefits at UT since her move to Knoxville in 2004.
Braquet called UT's non-discrimination policy "interesting," stating that after two decades of lobbying for sexual orientation and gender identity to be included in the policy, the rule was amended to include these descriptors in 2008 and 2009.
However, the footnote of the policy reads, "Eligibility and other terms and conditions of employment benefits at The University of Tennessee are governed by laws and regulations of the State of Tennessee, and this non-discrimination statement is intended to be consistent with those laws and regulations." This language acts as a disclaimer regarding benefits prohibited by state law.
"I think a lot about the benefits that I do not get from the university and from the state just because I happen to be a lesbian," Braquet said. "I have a co-worker who married his wife a few months ago. As soon as they were married, he was able to carry her on his health, vision and dental insurance. My partner and I have been together for 17 years, and yet, I cannot put her on my insurance."
According to the Human Rights Campaign, 29 states currently have constitutional amendments restricting marriage to one man and one woman, while same sex couples can legally marry in 17 states and Washington, D.C.
As part of the initiative to become a Top 25 public research institution, UT Faculty Senate requested that Chancellor Jimmy Cheek grant domestic partnership benefits in 2013. University of Florida and Georgia Tech, both Top 25 schools, already have such measures in place.
Braquet asserted that acceptance of the LGBT community is a necessity to reach the Top 25 mark.
"I know that if UT wants to be Top 25, it is going to have to embrace diversity in all of its grandeur," she said. "That means ethnicity, religion, ability, age, gender, socio-economic status, immigrant status, race, and sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
"To get the best and the brightest students, faculty and staff, you have to have your minds and doors open to everyone."
Following Cheek's swift rejection of the proposal to extend benefits to same-sex couples, Robert Naylor, junior in global studies and co-chairperson of the Progressive Student Alliance, began the Benefit Equality Campaign to elicit a more eloquent response from Cheek.
The campaign sought not only benefits for LGBT staff, but also employees who engage in committed and cohabited relationships without legal bonds of marriage. In Naylor's opinion, providing these benefits to all employees is now an expectation at large universities. Withholding these benefits, he believes, refects poorly on UT.
Jennifer Dobbins, a first year UT law student who worked with Naylor on the campaign, asserted that offering domestic partnership benefits would lead to a stronger university with a higher caliber of faculty and staff.
"It's very difficult to me for the university to say it offers a welcoming and inclusive environment when peoples' significant others, in some cases spouse," Dobbins said, "cannot access the same benefits that their married heterosexual colleagues can."
Student and faculty support for the Benefit Equality Campaign was unanimous; however, Cheek remained opposed to considering possible benefits due to potential political repercussions from the Tennessee legislature.
"At the time I thought this was just an excuse, but after seeing what is happening with Sex Week I understand that he was probably threatened," Naylor said. "Chancellor Cheek was and is in a difficult position to offer domestic partner benefits, but it isn't impossible."