On Feb. 18 the University of Alaska Board of Regents voted to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. The 8-2 decision by the University’s governing board has been a long time coming. It happened because times are changing and because the University’s new president is capable of courage and wise common sense.
Between 1992 - 1996, students, faculty, staff, and the public had encouraged the board to include the words “sexual orientation” in the university’s nondiscrimination policy. They did this through testimony, after which the board would refer the issue to committees for discussion. As a member of the board between 1989 – 1997, I observed the issue closely. To me it seemed so simple — adding sexual orientation to a list of protected categories in the policy that included, among others, race, color, and religion. But it wasn’t.
In September 1996, knowing that I had little time to help those who supported the change, I encouraged Mark, Mildred, and Sara Boesser to come to Fairbanks from Juneau to testify on the issue, which would finally be up for a vote before the full board. The Boessers had long supported the rights of gays and lesbians, and were eloquent speakers. On Friday, Sept. 27, they were joined by Shirley Gordon of Fairbanks, the wife of Alaska’s late Episcopalian bishop, William J. Gordon. All four speakers limited their remarks to three minutes, a requirement. At one point Mark Boesser, commenting about his eldest daughter, who had been the first speaker, said, “You know, I not only love my daughter, Sara, I LIKE her.” My heart was full as I watched them outline their reasons for supporting the inclusion of “sexual orientation” in the nondiscrimination clause. “Does it matter whom you love if you live a good life?” asked Mildred.
The response by the regents to this thoughtful, civil, levelly-spoken presentation was mixed. I saw both tension and acceptance in faces as they listened. However, the response by the board president saddened me. Early in the presentation he walked to the table where coffee was served, and stayed there until the presentation was over. His empty chair with the gavel on the table in front of it spoke to his absolute disagreement. When it came time to vote, the measure was defeated 6-5. During the break that followed I thanked the Boessers and Shirley Gordon, who went on their way. “There will be another day,” they said.
More than 14 years later — the first time this issue had appeared on the agenda since 1996 — the regents have had their say, and the University of Alaska joins 400 American colleges and universities that include sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination clauses. The university already provides benefits to same-sex partners of employees who qualify as financially interdependent partners under UA regulations.
Pat Gamble, new university president, had said before the meeting that national legal trends were moving in this direction, and he formally recommended that regents make the change. “Alaska may be the only state without sexual orientation as a specifically-listed protection in a public university policy. The time has come to acknowledge this protection explicitly,” he said.
Although it seemed clear in 1996 that regents appointed by Democratic governors and regents appointed by Republican governors held different views on this subject, I think that no longer exists. Regents serve eight-year terms, so all regents now serving (except for one, who was reappointed) have been appointed by Republican governors. This is a sign that the issue regarding sexual orientation, generally speaking (think “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”), has come into the mainstream and is being accepted.
Every Sunday when I read the Weddings and Celebrations section in the New York Times I see stories about gay and lesbian couples as well as those about heterosexual couples. Their backgrounds, interests, and love are intertwined and similar. If photographs were not included a reader could not necessarily determine the sex of those who have pledged their lives to each other.
Isn’t this the way we may finally all get together — through acceptance and tolerance?
I send congratulations to the regents of our state university, and warm good wishes to those who continue the fight for social justice.
• Whitehead Breeze, a lifelong Alaskan, was a member of the University of Alaska Board of Regents from 1989–1997.
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