Bias that dares not speak its name

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High-ranking officials of the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee consider their campus to be a model of LGBT inclusivity. 

But UWM admission officials denied in-state tuition to a man whose husband – the couple was legally married in New York – has lived in the state for more than a year. The first rejection letter the couple received gave the real reason why: Same-sex marriage and its equivalent are illegal in Wisconsin.

But when the couple protested, the university provided a growing list of other reasons, which we believe are disingenuous. In responding to our coverage of the incident, vice chancellor of student affairs Michael R. Laliberte insisted the in-state tuition was denied because the applicant’s partner is a resident physician working at a hospital under contract. But Laliberte was unable to provide even theoretical instances of other spouses of contract workers being denied in-state tuition.

Prior to the contract excuse, the couple was told that resident physicians are not considered workers. That reason appears to have been dropped after university officials were informed that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year mandated that resident physicians be treated as regular workers under the law.

Bias cloaked in bureaucratese is still bias.

The couple got the runaround when they should have gotten empathy. The university could have made some sort of accommodation for their situation but apparently didn’t try, even though the applicant was accepted into two programs and had already begun classes.

Perhaps because they’re funded by the state, university officials seemed unwilling to criticize state law discriminating against same-sex couples. But they didn’t want to be perceived as complying with blatant discrimination either. In the process of trying to avoid both a conflict with the state and the appearance of bigotry, the university damaged two lives and missed the opportunity to shine a light on a seldom-exposed consequence of anti-gay laws.

That’s not very gay friendly, in our opinion. Throughout our contact with the university while investigating this incident, not one admissions or student affairs officer expressed regret or compassion.

Many organizations that claim to be inclusive sometimes behave otherwise. Walgreens, for instance, provides low-profile sponsorships for LGBT events in Wisconsin. But the company refuses to distribute WiG in its stores. Officials have told us that it’s not us – it’s them. For three years, they’ve said they’re planning to eliminate all publications because they’re messy. But with the exception of a couple of stores whose managers have agreed to look the other way, the other publications are still on display and ours are not.

The take-away message from all of this is that the LGBT community has reached the point where overt discrimination against us is frowned on, but it’s still permitted under the radar. That represents progress but not success.