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Why one gay professor would leave Pennsylvania

Denying benefits to same-sex partnerships, risks causing an exodus of qualified people

Sunday, November 21, 1999

By Scott Sandage

Pennsylvanians should consider the impact of "brain drain" as they take sides in the ongoing debate over whether colleges should provide benefits to the same-sex partners of lesbian and gay employees. Will the denial of equal benefits for equal work push faculty (as well as graduating students) to seek work in other states or to refuse to come here in the first place?


Scott A. Sandage, Ph.D, is an assistant professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University.


The bill passed by the Legislature last week, which exempts state institutions from local human rights ordinances that require domestic partner benefits, puts these questions on the table for all who care about the quality of education in this state.

As an openly gay professor at Carnegie Mellon, I have reluctantly informed university President Jared L. Cohon that I will leave Pennsylvania should the state and my employer choose to continue discriminating against me and my family. My employer is not directly covered by the pending law, but Carnegie Mellon does not have a partner benefits policy and it remains to be seen whether it will risk political hostility to implement one.

Let me explain why I would leave Pennsylvania, drawing on my own experience and on broader national trends.

My partner David Jasper and I have been committed to each other for more than 15 years, since we were 20-year-old college students in Iowa. We own a car together, hold joint credit cards and financial accounts, hold medical powers of attorney for one another, and are the beneficiaries of each other's insurance policies. We have a dog named Max. My colleagues at Carnegie Mellon like David and entertain us in their homes as a couple.

Employee benefits, however, should not depend on whether I can prove that I lead a respectable, domestic life. Whether we are "normal" or not is beside the point. Most couples do not have a dozen children, but lawmakers are not attacking benefits for those who exceed the proverbial 2.3 children. The right to define one's family, its size and composition, belongs to each of us. Benefits should not depend on my private life but on my service to the community.

If student demand is any indicator, I am a popular teacher who fulfills that standard of service to education in Pennsylvania. Eighty students registered for one of my fall classes that is limited to 25. To accommodate this demand, I volunteered to teach a second section that doubles my workload. I love teaching, and I love my students.

Having lived everywhere from Washington, D.C., to Frankfurt, Germany, to New York City, I cannot imagine a better home than Pittsburgh. I turned down a job at Harvard University to come to CMU and have since been recruited by Notre Dame, the University of Michigan and American University. Recently, the New York Times profiled my forthcoming book, which six publishers bid against each other to publish.

I have been a fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress. I have been a historical adviser to the National Park Service, the National Archives, a Broadway play, and this week am helping to redesign the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington.

But if Gov. Ridge signs the pending bill and Carnegie Mellon chooses not to implement domestic partner benefits, I will be better off in another state. Hundreds of institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton, Yale and Harvard already have these benefits in place.

Fortunately, my students will have a second chance to learn about fairness when they graduate to lucrative jobs in the corporate sector, perhaps in other states. Competition is now stiffer than ever in the challenge of attracting and retaining the best employees. Partner benefits are old news at hundreds of companies like Bell Atlantic, Levi Strauss, Microsoft, Pillsbury and Walt Disney.

To be honest, however, I have nothing to complain about. CMU has no partner benefits policy, but I negotiated a "special deal" as part of my contract when I was hired in 1995. I would not have come without benefits for David, and I hoped that this would be a temporary solution.

Yet, my solution is no more admirable than the law that Gov. Ridge is about to sign. Carnegie Mellon treats me differently from other valuable lesbian and gay employees, who lacked the clout to get a "special deal."

I did not spurn Harvard to be a "scab" at Carnegie Mellon, and in the long run I will not continue to work and live in a state that discourages employers -- my own or any other -- from offering equal compensation for equal work.

If history shows anything clearly, it is that both governments and individuals are wondrously capable of manufacturing reasons not to do the right thing. On July 4, 1852, Frederick Douglass was asked to explain why the slaves should be emancipated. He replied that inviting a black man to make a speech on Independence Day was an insulting irony, and instead he spoke out on the next day, July fifth. "Where all is plain," Douglass thundered, "there is nothing to be argued."

It is profoundly insulting to have to justify my existence, to document my love and my family and to enumerate my value to Pittsburgh and to Pennsylvania. A century and a half after Frederick Douglass said that justice needs no argument, isn't it time to stop discriminating voluntarily, instead of waiting for someone to force us to do so? Isn't it time to stop hiding behind the letter of the law and instead to conduct ourselves according to a true spirit of justice?

The Fifth of July has come for lesbian and gay Americans, and if I cannot receive fair treatment in Pennsylvania, with great reluctance I will go elsewhere.

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