A professor simply wanted to register his domestic partner for an Emory gym membership, like other faculty members did with their spouses. Rather than being able to do so, he encountered an obstacle last fall that was “insulting and offensive.”
Even though Tim Holbrook, associate dean of faculty and professor of law, has been in a relationship with his partner for six years, they were not recognized as domestic partners at Emory.
Because his domestic partner lives in Denver, they did not fit requirements for same sex couple benefits that require domestic partners to live in the household.
The discriminatory nature of these requirements prompted Holbrook to take action.
Working with a President’s commission last spring, his memo and discussions with Human Resources at Emory led to tangible change.
HR eliminated multiple barriers in the registration process for same sex domestic partners, according to Director of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) Life Michael Shutt.
These changes included removing the notarization requirement of the registration form, allowing the use of a wedding or civil union certificate as evidence of a relationship.
In addition, HR made the pre-existing requirements for the relationship – like the requirement to live in the same household – into optional examples of documents of proof. Couples now have to meet at least one of the listed requirements in order to register for benefits.
In the 1990s, Emory enabled same sex domestic partners to receive many of the benefits that apply to married couples, like health insurance, life insurance and gym memberships. To do so, however, the couples had to register using a form called an affidavit.
That form had multiple requirements. Some of the provisions make it compulsory for domestic partners to show their wedding certificate, to show proof of financial interdependence – through bills with the names of both spouses or joint bank accounts – and to live in the same household.
Now, because of Holbrook’s initiative, these are all options rather than requirements that domestic partners can use to prove their relationship.
Another change is the removal of the document’s notarized requirement.
This change means that homosexual couples no longer need to swear under penalty of law that the documents are truthful.
Homosexual couples have never had to swear by law with this document.
“I took it as insulting – that in essence they don’t trust us,” Holbrook said.
He then brought his concerns to the President’s Commission on Sexuality, Gender Diversity and Queer Equality.
From there, Holbrook wrote a memo that described the national law regarding marriage, civil unions and domestic partner benefits.
The memo also elaborated on a comparison of Emory’s rules regarding recognition of and benefits for same sex partners with those of peer institutions.
Specifically, Holbrook found that the cohabitation requirement – or the need for the couple to be living together – was discriminatory especially for an academic institution where many couples live separately because of the nature of their jobs.
According to him, these requirements show that Emory was “behind the times.”
Holbrook sent the memo to Human Resources. After two to three meetings last spring, he found that HR was incredibly responsive.
“The fact that the we now have the university saying ‘Yes, we will recognize same sex marriages’ is a big step,” Holbrook said. “I think they are finally getting that from an expressive viewpoint that it actually welcomes gays and lesbians from the LGBT community into the university in a way that denying recognition of our relationships is very marginalizing.”
Holbrook found a lot of support for this change and very little backlash.
“I think it’s wonderful, and this is the direction Emory should be headed in,” Emory Pride Co-President and College junior Dohyun Ahn wrote in an email to the Wheel. “It should have happened much sooner than it did. I am very proud of Dr. Holbrook for taking up that cause and seeing it through with persistence and passion.”
Shutt attributes Holbrook’s success to that fact that it was a simple change of a form rather than a change that has any financial strings.
More importantly, Shutt explains the importance of a leader who followed the issue through.
“It was just a faculty member who decided to do this,” Shutt said. “He didn’t have a leadership role in an organization that was pushing for this. It was someone [who stood] up.”
According to Shutt, this step marks another one in Emory’s evolution towards a more accepting LGBT environment.
It wasn’t long ago, Shutt said, that same sex couples had a waiting period before they could change their registered partner if they were involved in a separation, a provision that did not apply to heterosexual couples.
Several years ago, the commission was able to alter this provision for Emory – another step in the movement toward equality.
A Long Way to Go
Although Holbrook’s achievement and other recent steps have moved the University forward, Shutt also said there are a variety of issues that Emory needs to address.
Shutt said that the real reason Emory was nationally recognized as one of Campus Pride’s 2012 Top 25 LGBT-friendly Colleges and Universities was not because the campus environment is actually that open to the LGBT community.
According to Shutt, Campus Pride did not accurately represent reality because they did not use specific enough questions for their rankings.
In his eyes, regardless of this top 25 ranking, Emory still has a long way to go.
One issue is the Defense of Marriage Act that currently taxes same sex couples for benefits that married couples also receive. However, married couples are not taxed on these benefits.
“Basically, they are not getting equal pay for equal work because of the federal government,” Shutt said. “Universities and companies are contributing extra money to same sex couples benefits packages and salaries to offset that cost of the federal government to equalize or create equity for salaries. And that’s a big thing for Emory.”
Currently, Emory does not do this. According to Shutt, the commission brought it up to University President James W. Wagner, but to no avail.
Holbrook attributes the difficulty of modifying this because it deals with financial matters.
Shutt said whereas Holbrook oversaw these recent changes, the University has not addressed these issues because they do not have a leader.
“You need a person who will carry it … from beginning to end,” Shutt said. “Right now, there is not necessarily a champion to do that.”
A New Council
Many of these problems previously mentioned are featured in an 11-page, student-compiled document for the new Advisory Council on Community and Diversity, which will replace the President’s Commissions.
The document highlights recommendations for institutional policies and procedures and the campus departments that are responsible for them.
“I think it will help ground the council because right now they are not taking on acute issues,” Shutt said. “They are looking at a macro level of diversity.”
Holbrook also says he is skeptical of the University’s ability to address LGBT issues with this council because they do not have a dedicated “home” in this great mix of diversity issues.
At the same time, he sees possible upsides to the fact that the council will have town halls and increased accountability.
Shutt hopes that the long-term positions on the council will help with keeping departments accountable.
– Karishma Mehrotra