Chuck Smith

What SCOTUS striking down DOMA means for Texas

Michael Knaapen, left, and his husband John Becker, right, embrace outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, June 26, 2013, after the court cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California by holding that defenders of California's gaymarriage ban did not have the right to appeal lower court rulings striking down the ban. 
Michael Knaapen, left, and his husband John Becker, right, embrace outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, June 26, 2013, after the court cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California by holding that defenders of California's gaymarriage ban did not have the right to appeal lower court rulings striking down the ban. 

Couples living in Texas with same-sex marriages from other states can now pull federal benefits, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court issued rulings on the two long-awaited same-sex marriage cases. The second ruling has created a path for same-sex marriage in California, and will not have much of an impact on Texas. But the first ruling struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal ban on same-sex marriages that was preventing many couples legally married in states from receiving federal benefits.

“DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages; for it tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition," Justice Anthony Kennedy, who issued the majority opinion, wrote.

While Texas will continue to forbid and not recognize same-sex marriages, same-sex couples who reside in Texas but have marriage liscences from other states can now pull federal benefits.

"The most immediate effect is that lesbian and gay Texas couples that are legally married in jurisdictions that allow them to be married will now have recognization by the federal government," said Chuck Smith, the Executive Director of Equality Texas, a gay and lesbian lobbying organization. "It means they can now file a joint tax return, it means they're eligible for social security benefits and any of the things that are covered by federal law."

Smith said while the Texas constitution is not changing in regards to same-sex marriage, the trend of opinions nationwide is changing. Smith said both rulings, which are considered victories for the LGBTQ community, could have an impact on the public opinion in Texas.

"The changes in public opinion that are happening in other states across the country are happening here in Texas too," Smith said.

Exactly ten years prior to ruling on DOMA, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that struck down sodomy laws nationwide. Smith said that ruling was historic — and so is this one.

"It is record breaking. It's historic and it is fabulous," Smith said. "I hope the gravity and magnitude of this will have an effect here in Texas, in terms of when people look at our constitution. We need to reconsider that, because there is really no rational basis for inequality."

While the UT System Faculty Advisory Council will debate with each other about a whole range of issues during the legislative session, they are all on board when it comes to domestic partner benefits.

The 30-member council voted unanimously on a resolution last month encouraging the UT System Board of Regents to work with the state Legislature on providing full benefits to domestic partners of System employees. Martha Hilley, chairwoman of UT’s Faculty Council, requested that the issue be put on the agenda. 

Hilley said part of her reasoning for making the request was to see where the faculty councils of other UT campuses and medical schools stand on the issue. 

“I wanted to see whether all of the other campuses felt the same way,” Hilley said. “And it passed unanimously.” 

In the last few years, the Senate of College Councils and Student Government passed similar resolutions calling for competitive benefits to be extended to partners of UT employees and retirees without regard to the partner’s sex. 

Invest in Texas, the nonpartisan student lobbying campaign, lists “allow[ing] UT to provide competitive plus-one benefit packages” as a central goal of its platform.  

“A growing practice throughout the nation is to allow an unmarried employee to add an adult, who they have lived with for a certain amount of time, to their benefits package,” said Michael Morton, Invest in Texas co-chairman and president of the Senate of College Councils. “We’re one of the few universities who don’t, and that hinders our ability to recruit.”

According to current Texas law, the UT and Texas A&M Systems can only offer uniform benefits to dependents specified under the Texas Insurance Code, including spouses and unmarried children under the age of 25. Texas Family Code defines spouse as “a husband, who is a man, or a wife, who is a woman,” and specifies that “a member of a civil union or similar relationship ... between persons of the same sex is not a spouse.” 

But according to Chuck Smith, president of the LGBT lobbying group Equality Texas, the legal issues are not so black and white. 

“How much power the University has to institute domestic partner benefits depends largely on who you ask,” Smith said. “We might contend that the University has the ability to do it now, and in fact has the obligation to do it now, because the statute that created the two flagship institutions for UT and A&M specifically requires that they be competitive.” 

Smith said that the politicization of the issue makes it less likely that any laws will be amended. 

“This issue has been heavily politicized, but it should be viewed as a competitive workplace issue,” Smith said. “That will change when we have a different governor.”

Hilley said she hopes the regents will see the domestic partner issue from a competitive workplace standpoint. 

“More and more states are signing on to do this, and here we sit — a state that should be a leader in all things,” Hilley said. “I think it’s worth a shot to bring this issue up before the board every time we can.”

Published on February 11, 2013 as "Council votes for benefits for domestic partnerships". 

Recent accomplishments within the gay rights movement have caused some to question the use of gender specific pronouns such as “he,” or “her.” The use of gender neutral pronouns is thought to be friendlier to individuals who do not identify themselves as specifically male of female.

Photo Credit: Andrew Edmonson | Daily Texan Staff

When New York passed legislation legalizing same-sex marriage June 24, it proved a major victory for the gay rights movement and reflected the growing change of Americans’ attitudes toward gay men and women. While the bill’s final outcome grew tenuous near the end of New York’s legislative session, evidence of its safe passage had been mounting. In May, a Gallup poll revealed that for the first time, a majority of Americans support gay marriage.

While there is rising evidence that Americans’ attitudes towards gay rights is shifting, there are also some outlying effects of this greater acceptance slowly revealing themselves: our treatment of gender is poised for a serious re-evaluation. And that reconsideration could change the way we speak to each other.

The signs have been accumulating almost in conjunction with mile markers in the gay rights movement. Andrej Pejic, an androgynous male model from Bosnia, successfully modeled in both male and female runways during Paris Fashion Week in January.

Then in April, clothing retailer J.Crew was caught in a media firestorm after its catalog featured a young boy with toenails painted pink. In May, news broke of Toronto couple Kathy Witterick and David Stocker’s decision to not reveal their newborn baby’s sex as a way to prevent the child from being affected by societal norms.

And then last week, The Associated Press filed a fascinating report from Stockholm about a genderless preschool. None of the children, aged one through six, would be addressed by gender-specific pronouns, only as “friend.”

With gay and transgender Americans becoming more widely accepted and integrated into society, could American schools in the not-so-distant future stop using gender-specific pronouns such as the school in Stockholm?

At the moment, there is no immediate threat from the removal of gender pronouns or the creation of a widely used gender-neutral pronoun, but plenty have raised the question as of late. National Public Radio even published an article in June titled “The End of Gender?

But before any widespread change to the English vernacular occurs, more pertinent legislative hurdles would have to be leaped says Equality Texas Deputy Executive Director Chuck Smith.

Smith explains that while the use or creation of a gender-neutral pronoun would be helpful, the fight to create an infrastructure that could support such a pronoun is still ongoing.

An example Smith cites is the current process in issuing birth certificates in Texas.

“Currently the birth certificate has a ‘mother’ and ‘father’ block — we would like to see that changed to a gender-neutral pronoun,” Smith said. “But it’s more important that we get both names, whether the child has two moms or two dads, on the birth certificate. Compared to that, the gender-neutral pronoun is just a detail.”

But Smith said there are some gender-neutral pronouns, such as “Ze” for he or she, that already exist and are being used by people who feel that their gender is more neutral. These pronouns are used by people who feel that gender identity is on a spectrum and that instead of pinpointing exactly where they are on the spectrum, they exist within a range.

The search for a gender-neutral pronoun has had a long, storied past, spanning all the way back to 1745, according to an essay published in June by The Awl. Since then, grammarians have debated the use of using the singular “he” and “they” as a catch-all gender-neutral pronoun, but both have been challenged as insufficient.

The Fowler brothers, writers of the pre-eminent and influential language guide “The King’s English,” debunked the use of the singular “they” as something to be avoided. TheFowlers also state: “It is a real deficiency in English that we have no pronoun, like the French soi, son, to stand for him-or-her, his-or-her.”

But so far none of these grammatical debates centered on creating a gender-neutral pronoun are responses to the wider acceptance of gay rights. While the resulting effects of the gay rights movement might not be changing the English language in a significant way, it is eliciting greater discussion of gender identity. And with that, the possibility of a change in interpersonal rhetoric inches forward. It might not be a major talking point now, but it’s likely to be
one soon. 

After a summer of well-publicized deaths of several gay teenagers across the nation, two Texas lawmakers have introduced legislation to crack down on bullying in Texas’ public schools.

The two bills — one introduced by State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Ft. Worth, and the other introduced by Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin — would require school districts to toughen their anti-bullying policies. It would also provide training for school district staff so they can better deal with bullying and mandate that districts report the number and types of bullying incidents to the Texas Education Agency.

The reporting requirement would mandate school districts to determine if the bullying was a result of a student’s race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

“All Texas children and their parents expect schools to be safe and nurturing environments where the opportunity to learn can be realized,” Davis said. “We hope this proposed legislation will make children feel safer and give their parents peace of mind that this type of behavior won’t be tolerated in Texas schools.”

Strama said the bills were key to updating the state’s anti-bullying laws to deal with the new phenomenon of using the Internet to bully.
“The Texas Legislature has an opportunity to address bullying and cyber-bullying during the next legislative session,” he said.

Equality Texas, one of the largest gay rights groups in the state, has endorsed the bills.

“It includes a present day definition of bullying and creates for the first time, a definition for cyber-bullying — it’s comprehensive in nature,” said Chuck Smith, Equality Texas’ deputy director. “It’s written using education language. It’s something that people who work in schools will not have any difficulty understanding.”

Smith said it was the first time an anti-bullying measure such as the ones introduced by Strama and Davis have been introduced in both the Texas House and Senate.

He also said that they would be lobbying for the measure as a general welfare measure, not as a bill that would expand rights or protections specifically for gay youth.

“It’s not a gay bullying bill,” Smith said. “This is legislation that seeks to deal with bullying for all children and at the end of the day no legislator wants to see a child bullied.”

Smith said this would be the issue that Equality Texas would focus most of their lobbying on because the expanded Republican majority has all but killed hopes for passing a bill that would allow for state employees to receive domestic partner benefits.