BY KRISTEN KELLEHERThe threat of state-wide changes to non-discrimation policies of public universities has gurnered national media attention and inspired heated activism among the state’s university students.
After a relatively quiet first four months in office, state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli released a letter to Virginia state universities advising them to prohibit “sexual orientation,” “gender identity” or “gender expression” from appearing as a protected class in a public university’s non-discrimination policy, in compliance with state law.
After the letter’s release on March 4, public university students across the state quickly materialized in protest against the policy change.
Among the first to begin these efforts was the University of Mary Washington, beginning with the Facebook group created on March 6, “UMW Votes ‘No’ to Ken Cuccinelli’s Discriminatory Letter.”
By Tuesday of last week, UMW People for the Rights of Individuals of Sexual Minorities (PRISM) collaborated with the UMW Young Democrats and other students to formally petition against the letter, collecting over 1,300 signatures from students and faculty during sixteen combined hours of campaigning on Tuesday and Wednesday.
PRISM petitioner Kat Hopkins marveled at the positive student response she saw during her two days collecting signatures.
“I was so amazed and warmed by the amount of people who grabbed the clipboard out of my hand to sign it,” Hopkins said. “I hope this has sparked university students in Virginia to look at state laws to know that there is discrimination. Discrimination is legal in Virginia.”
The letter came one month after Gov. McDonnell passed an executive order that did not include protection for homosexuals employed by the state of Virginia. Cuccinelli cited this recent action and similar past legislations within the letter, noting that ultimately “A Board of Visitors cannot adopt a policy position for which no authority has been granted or that has repeatedly been rejected by the General Assembly.”
Six days after the release of this letter, McDonnell issued an executive directive in response to Cuccinelli’s actions, assuring that “discrimination for any reason other than merit and ability has no place in state government.”
Both the UMW Student Senate and the university’s faculty senate have spoken out against policy change and have issued statements to the Board of Visitors to request that they uphold the university’s current non-discrimination policy, which includes protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The BOV passed a resolution yesterday, reaffirming the university’s nondiscrimination policy established in 1991, which protects sexual orientation.
George Farrar, associate vice president of university relations at UMW, said that he was initially very surprised by the attorney general’s letter, and that the letter “seemed very last century and out of synch with current acknowledgment of basic human rights.”
PRISM plans to continue to campaign against McDonnell’s executive order, in the hopes that the state will reincorporate sexual orientation into its employment non-discrimination policy.
More immediately, PRISM hopes to change the UMW policy to include not just sexual orientation, but also gender identity, which refers to people who are transgender or transsexual.
Statistically, these individuals are more likely to be targeted and discriminated against, and unemployment rates for transgender people were eight times higher than the national average in 2006, according to a study by scholar and transgender activist Richard Juang.
“It’s very important to fight both battles at once,” Brendon Bottle, PRISM president said. “[We] need to stand together as a community by not making concessions for the sake of getting a bill passed.”
The push to change state law is further stressed by McDonnell’s issue of an executive directive in response to Cuccinelli’s letter and not an executive order. An executive order is backed with legal support, whereas an executive directive functions as a policy statement, and has no legislation over the laws that support the state Attorney General’s argument for policy change.
Other public universities in VA have also committed to changing state law and maintaining current university policies, largely through the use of social media. Facebook has played a pivotal role in uniting the Virginia university students in this issue and in acting as a public forum for expression.
Phillip Murrialis, the creator of the Virginia Tech Facebook group against the letter, admits he first saw Cuccinelli’s letter through the UMW Facebook group and started his own to expand the effort to Virginia Tech.
Virginia Commonwealth University, which held a rally in protest of the letter on Wednesday, notes that this effort has extended to involve private universities and that the University of Richmond has mentioned starting its own group in support of incorporating sexual orientation into university policies.
The outcome for state university policy change is still formally uncertain, as most state universities, with the exception of William and Mary, have not officially stated that any changes would be made.