The LGBT community made their rallying cry heard Thursday in the Nyumburu Amphitheater as more than 250 students, staff and local politicians gathered to rouse support for faculty and staff domestic partner benefits.
In April, university President Dan Mote made a written appeal to University System Chancellor Brit Kirwan advocating for an extension of health insurance, tuition remission and survivor benefits - now only available for heterosexual married couples - to domestic partners at the university.
"I'm very proud to be here fighting for what is right," Del. Jim Rosapepe (D-Prince George's and Anne Arundel said. "We will be successful. This will be the year."
Rosapepe was joined by many of his colleagues in General Assembly, including gay politicians, to raise campus awareness about the issue and get the proposal approved by the Board of Regents and eventually signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley. The proposal was first put to the regents 13 years ago.
The rally, organized by the Pride Alliance, coincided with National Coming Out Day. Graduate Student Government President Laura Moore took the opportunity not only to back the measure but also to come out publicly.
"I'm here today as president of the 10,000-strong graduate student body," Moore said, "And I'm also here as a a member of the gay community." Moore said that although people close to her knew about her sexual orientation, the announcement was the first time she had made it known publicly.
"I was terrified, but whatever it takes to bring the issue forward," Moore said. "I had never hidden it, but it's a lot more public now."
Domestic partners of faculty and staff said the lack of benefits has hurt their ability to safeguard their families from financial uncertainty. Robyn Zeiger, a long-time family studies professor, has been with her partner Dori Anne Steele for nearly 25 years. Steele, who is not covered under the university health insurance, underwent three surgeries that totaled $8,800 a year in medical costs.
"We're not going to be happy until we get the full benefits," said Steele, who promised a party if the proposal passes. "I'll give free sitting massages."
Both the Student Government Association and the GSG have passed similar resolutions in a show of support for a university-wide policy. Pride Alliance Vice President Ron Correa said the university has long supported the measure.
"It was first proposed in 1994 as a system-wide initiative for benefits but was struck down," Correa said. "But this time, the proposal is just for College Park. The university has been behind this for 13 years."
Funding for this initiative "will be borne by the University of Maryland," according to Mote's memo, which Correa explained would add no extra costs to the budget but use existing funds.
Dissent has not been absent from the debate over extending benefits to gay couples. When the SGA voted on its resolution to support the move, three students voted against it, arguing it was contrary to the values upheld by the state.
The Maryland Court of Appeals upheld a state law banning same-sex marriage Sept. 18.
Mote based his support for domestic partner benefits on a report by the Human Resources Working Group, which found that the absence of mutual benefits put the university at a "competitive disadvantage."
Though the benefits would affect only an estimated 2 percent of the faculty on the campus, Correa said, talented recruits and dean candidates have rejected job offers at the university because of what they term "spousal inequality." The report said a "highly distinguished dance faculty" refused the position of dance department chair because the university does not offer domestic partner benefits.
"A research university is only as good as the researchers they have," Correa said. "Our degrees are worth more when we get top people. It indirectly affects students, and they should be concerned."
The university is one of 10 Association of American Universities institutions in a group of 62 that do not offer the benefits package.
During his tenure as Montgomery County executive, Doug Duncan, now the university vice president for administrative affairs, signed a provision that extended domestic partner benefits to all county employees. He said that the university must follow the example of other sectors of society that have recognized mutual benefits to usher in a stable future.
"It's a real issue for us," Duncan said. "Lots of corporations do it. We just want the University of Maryland to join the mainstream."