(Jacob Pinson)

By Stephanie Smith

A decade-long struggle to adopt domestic partner benefits at Eastern came to an end recently when Eastern President Doug Whitlock announced at fall convocation the university would adopt the policy, making it available later this fall. Referred to in the policy as “sponsored dependent” benefits, the term, President Whitlock told the crowd, wasn’t meant to mislead.

“Lest anyone accuse me of using a euphemism to cloud this issue, this is what is called at many places ‘domestic partner benefits,'” Whitlock said at the Aug. 16 convocation. “To me, this is a matter of fundamental fairness that requires we treat all members of our community equally.”

According to the new policy, Eastern employees can now extend their benefits to anyone who lives with them for at least 12 months, so long as the person is:

18 years old
not a relative
isn’t employed by the homeowner
is not eligible for Medicare

The policy also allows for benefits to dependent children, so long as their primary residence is with the Eastern employee.

In sponsoring domestic partner benefits, Eastern joins a number of other Kentucky universities that have already adopted such a program, such as the University of Kentucky and Berea College.

The move to extend benefits to domestic partners has not been without its opponents. Lawmakers in the state Senate have repeatedly pushed for a bill that would prohibit any public college or government agency from providing health insurance to unmarried domestic partners. But the Senate’s efforts have been blocked by the state House of Representatives, which has consistently voted to kill the bill.

“At Eastern, this issue first surfaced more than a decade ago when gay and lesbian faculty, students and staff testified before the Faculty Senate in hopes of adopting such a policy at the university,” said Marta Miranda, director of Women and Gender Studies.

“Faculty Senate took a vote and all but one person passed it, it was almost unanimous,” Miranda said.

“When the idea was forwarded to President Kustra, he supported the idea and promised to take it to the Board of Regents,” she said. But the proposal never made it that far, as Kustra’s tenure soon ended at the university.

“Later, Kustra’s successor, then-President Joanne Glasser took up the issue again, sending the policy to Human Resources for a ‘cost benefit analysis,'” Miranda said. But again the issue was tabled, as Glasser failed to bring it before the Board of Regents.

“I think we had to wait for the political climate external to the university to mature,” said Malcolm Frisbie, a professor of biological sciences who also serves as the faculty regent.

Three years ago, a group of students in the Queer Theory and Politics class embarked on a project examining the lack of domestic partner benefits at Eastern. The group soon took up the cause, staging rallies and passing around a petition that acquired more than 1,000 signatures, Miranda said. They then presented their findings to President Whitlock, who ultimately signed off on the measure.

University employees have been supportive of the new policy.

“We’re very excited to be able to offer this,” said Gary Barksdale, director of Human Resources. “I think it’s a great thing.”

Sue Strong, a psychology professor at Eastern, said she is one of many faculty members who welcomed the change, adding that she was one of the policy’s original supporters.

“It provides me great peace of mind to know that my domestic partner, Barb, will have access to health insurance and benefits that other spouses enjoy,” Strong said.

Frisbie, the faculty regent, said he likewise believed the policy was long overdue.

“Eastern is an institution that values community and part of valuing community is recognizing and embracing diversity,” Frisbie said. “If we truly are a community, then we need to care for all members of our community.