MADISON, Wis. – Gay and lesbian faculty and staff members told University of Wisconsin-Madison leaders Wednesday that they were considering leaving the UW over the state's passage of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions.
Others said they would stay and push the state to adopt domestic partner benefits for UW and state employees despite the overwhelming vote last week for the amendment.
"I think that a lot of people are looking elsewhere," said Concha Gomez, an academic staff member in the mathematics department. "Those of us who are over 40 and thinking about retirement don't have time for this to change."
More than 100 students, faculty and staff attended the listening session with UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley.
Wiley told the crowd he was disappointed the amendment passed, and it would make the Legislature less likely to add health insurance benefits for partners.
The lack of those benefits, he said, puts the university at a major competitive disadvantage in recruiting and retaining talented employees.
Gomez said she started looking for jobs in other states the day after the amendment passed. She said she and her partner entered into a civil union in Vermont in 2000, but now they fear they have no legal rights in Wisconsin.
Dennis Miller, an employee in the Department of Art, told Wiley his partner resigned his job in the admissions office Tuesday over the issue.
Wiley said a state law that defines the family for insurance purposes must be changed before the university can offer the benefits. Lawmakers have repeatedly rejected attempts to do so, and every other attempt by the UW to find ways around the law has failed, he said.
"In this one instance we are now apparently forced to discriminate very much against our will," he said.
The chancellor has formed a team to review the potential impact of the amendment on current and future benefits for partners of gay employees.
On a more symbolic level, UW leaders worry the campus reputation as a champion for fairness and equality will suffer.
In an e-mail sent to students last week, Interim Dean of Students Lori Berquam called the amendment's passage with 59 percent of the vote a "strike against equality" that will eventually be seen as a "shameful aberration" of the state's progressive tradition.
UW-Madison junior Adam Schmidt, who voted for the amendment, said such language from the UW's administrative headquarters means his opinion is not welcomed on campus.
"While my ballot was cast not in the name of hate, intolerance or homophobia — rather in the spirit of caution and moderation — my position and my beliefs have come under attack from high atop Bascom Hill," he wrote in a letter in the Wisconsin State Journal.
Eric Trekell, director of the campus Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender center, said the university's response will be key in whether it retains gay employees such as himself. He applauded Wiley's initial statement on the amendment in which he pledged Madison would continue to be a welcoming place for all employees.
Trekell said he has received e-mails from people "as they are crying at their computers and students just enraged and vowing vengeance."
"The people of the state of Wisconsin said it's not merely gay marriage," he said. "They said, 'We're not going to recognize your relationships at all."'
He added: "Time will modify the extreme emotions and then it will offer the opportunity for political action and consensus building."
While a team of employees reviews the potential ramifications, Wiley said current benefits and services offered for gay couples will remain in place unless a court orders the UW to change them.
The campus helps domestic partners of newly hired employees find jobs and receive in-state tuition. The partners can also qualify for library cards and passes to UW recreational facilities, among other benefits. To qualify, they fill out a form verifying they are in a committed relationship with commingled finances.
Benefits available to domestic partners in the UW System, the state's largest employer, include policies for life insurance and eye and dental care that are paid for entirely by employees. Those will continue to be available as well, Al Crist, associate vice president for human resources, said Wednesday.
The passage of the amendment adds a layer of uncertainty to the effort to add the domestic partner benefits to UW-Madison, the only school in the Big 10 without them. The second sentence of the amendment bars government from recognizing marriage among unmarried individuals. Critics say it could be used to challenge any attempt to add the benefits.