DontGivetoUVA.com: Gay grads solicit UVA donors
It's a constant sore point for gay UVA employees: They don't get the same benefits for their family that their heterosexual coworkers do. Two recent UVA grads, fed up with what they see as a double standard, have decided to strike back. Their website, DontGivetoUVA.com, threatens to siphon the dollars of homo-sympathetic donors.
That strategy has led UVA Pride, the association of non-straight employees, to distance itself from DontGivetoUVA, even while seizing the opportunity to draw attention to the issue.
Andrew Borchini and Andrew Bond graduated from UVA in May 2003, and ever since they've been bombarded with fundraising letters from their alma mater.
"It got to us," says Borchini. "Why should we donate to UVA when it doesn't value gay relations?"
Thus was born a plan. The two Andrews emailed UVA President John Casteen on February 3, giving him until Valentine's Day to cough up domestic partner benefits or else their website would begin accepting donations.
"Our main goal is to persuade the university to offer benefits like so many of its peer universities have already done, many 10 years ago," says Borchini. "And second, to provoke a discussion at UVA because it's fallen by the wayside."
Well, they've certainly provoked discussion.
UVA Pride issued a statement of disapproval of the young upstarts' website– but agreeing that gays are treated like second-class citizens at UVA. Casteen will be meeting with the group, although he's already told them that legally the school's hands are tied, says Claire Kaplan, UVA's sexual assault education coordinator.
That's what the Andrews were told, too. "He reminded us that the Virginia Code defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and that's how UVA benefits are based," says Borchini.
Borchini, who wrote his senior thesis on the subject, disagrees with Casteen's assessment. "The law on this matter is vague at best," says Borchini, who works at the liberal lobby group, People for the American Way. "Top legal scholars," says Borchini, "have differing opinions as far as UVA's ability to offer benefits."
And Casteen wants to see those legal opinions, says Borchini, who lives in Santa Monica, California.
For psychology professor Charlotte Patterson, the issue is more than a debate. Her partner of more than 20 years is self-employed, and the couple have three children.
"We are a family of five, and only one of us has benefits," says Patterson.
"Heterosexual couples are covered by UVA insurance if they wish to be, and they have other benefits. Their spouses are allowed access to the gym, a library card... None of these are open to us," she says.
To Patterson, who's been at the university since 1975, it's time: "I think the university should be providing for the families of minority groups as they do majority groups. It should be leading, not lagging behind."
She says her tenure gives her latitude to speak out on the issue, a luxury she says others don't have. "I think the university should be ashamed of itself to leave hardworking families out in the cold," she scolds.
UVA is one of only three top-25 research universities that don't offer domestic partner benefits. Catholic schools Georgetown and Notre Dame are the other two, according to Borchini.
Even in Virginia, where homosexual couples could face criminal charges for intimate practices until last summer– when the Supreme Court declared sodomy laws unconstitutional– Borchini points out that Washington and Lee and the University of Richmond offer domestic partner benefits.
Of course, those schools are private, and even as the Massachusetts Supreme Court and San Francisco have given the thumbs up to gay marriage, Virginia's public universities face a state government whose recent actions seem to suggest that gay rights stay in the closet.
In 2000, the Virginia Supreme Court struck down Arlington County's domestic partner ordinance. Kaplan believes that ruling doesn't apply to an institution of higher learning. "In the short term, there might be other ways beside state funds," she says. "People aren't thinking creatively."
As for DontGivetoUVA.com, "A lot of us think it's cool, but when you do this stuff, you need to consult with the recipients," says Kaplan. "They've certainly gotten the attention, but it's put those of us who work here in a difficult spot. And those who don't have tenure could be put at risk. There are people who are very afraid."
"We understand that this is important to many people, and we plan to study the issue carefully," says UVA spokesperson Carol Wood. She urges those concerned about the state's partner benefits law to contact the governor's office or members of the General Assembly.
This is the same General Assembly whose House of Delegates just passed one bill prohibiting Virginia from recognizing gay marriages or civil unions, and considered another forbidding those not related by blood or marriage to pool resources for a Virginia Housing Development Loan. That vote came up for a vote Monday, February 16 and did not advance to the Senate.
Kaplan is cheered by HB 1016, which allows insurance companies to offer broader benefits to people who reside together but aren't married. The bill squeaked by in the House of Delegates 50-49 on February 16.
DontGivetoUVA.com started accepting donations on Valentine's Day, and so far has taken in $500 toward its goal of $100,000 in 2004. Nearly 300 people have signed its on-line petition.
Borchini is excited by the feedback on the site and he's "cautiously optimistic" about the future of domestic partner benefits at a time when gay rights are very much in the national news.
And he thinks the website might be the nudge that motivates UVA to shed its "institutional discrimination" and join other top-ranked schools in providing those benefits.
Because as Virginia's flagship university, says Borchini, "It's very embarrassing."
From left: Sarah Patterson Cohn, Deborah Cohn, Eliza Patterson Cohn, Charlotte Patterson, and David Patterson Cohn
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO