By Dawn Wolfe
ANN ARBOR – The university that extended employment protection to gay and lesbian graduate employees in 1975 is refusing to do the same for transgender employees in 2005. Nor are University of Michigan negotiators willing to discuss the Graduate Employees Organization’s demand that the university’s health insurance cover transition-related health care, according to GEO lead negotiator Andre Wilson.
The grad students’ contract expired Feb. 1, but the union has voted to extend talks to Feb. 24. Even with the extension, Wilson – the first transgender person to hold the position – says that the University’s intransigence on these and other issues may lead to a strike.
According to Wilson, “There’s been essentially no progress whatsoever,” on transgender employees’ issues since negotiations began in November 2004.
Michigan law currently offers no protection against employment discrimination based on either sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. Inclusion of such provisions in employees’ contracts is thus the only protection that LGBT employees have against being fired, demoted, or otherwise discriminated against on the job.
Wilson said that the university’s refusal to cover trans-related health care is also a form of discrimination.
“The transgender exclusions in health insurance policies are the only exclusions that discriminate against an entire class of people and denies them their identity,” said Wilson.
Wilson continued that denying health benefits to transgender employees is discrimination, “In the same way that denying gay people partner benefits to cover their families is discrimination against gay people.”
And, unlike most employers, the University of Michigan owns the GradCare program that insures its graduate employees, giving the university direct control over what is covered and what is not.
U of M’s position
According to U of M in its online edition of the University Record, the University doesn’t want to add gender identity and expression to the nondiscrimination clause of the GEO contract because transgender employees fall into a category that is not defined by state or federal law.
While this might seem reasonable, it is also the reverse of what Wilson says happened when the GEO won contract protections for gay and lesbian employees.
“What they’re telling us is very contradictory in the sense that, thirty years ago when we won protections for gay employees in our contract, they didn’t have it in the bylaws. And … they didn’t put sexual orientation into their bylaws until 20 years later. So we had language in our contract for sexual orientation for 20 years when they didn’t have it in the bylaws,” said Wilson.
Trans issues aren’t the only issues causing a bargaining-table gridlock. The GEO is also seeking to protect domestic partnership benefits for its members with same-gender partners by requesting that the university switch to covering employees’ “designated beneficiaries” of either gender. While the university claims that the cost of making the switch would be considerable, Wilson disagrees.
“From what we can tell, opening it up even a little bit more broadly simply will not bring in very many people into the coverage,” said Wilson.
The GEO’s concern is that the university could lose the option of providing domestic partner benefits to same-gender partners if it is sued under Proposal 2, the amendment to the Michigan Constitution that forbids recognizing LGBT families as “similar unions” to dual-gender marriages. U of M has vowed to fight in court to keep the benefits.
“We cannot sign a contract that is open to court challenge. We’d be derelict if we did,” said Wilson.
To lend your support to GEO: Email: [email protected].
To share your opinion with U of M’s administration, contact:
University Provost Paul Courant; email: [email protected]
University President Mary Sue Coleman: Phone: 734-764-6270; Email: [email protected]
Send a letter to the Michigan Daily, U of M’s student-run newspaper, email