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Claire Kaplan Discusses Gay Issues

Claire KaplanJuly 23, 2004

By Anne Bromley

A faculty member’s partner — who has chronic health problems — has no health benefits and cannot adopt their daughter, because two-parent adoption for anyone other than legally married couples is illegal in Virginia.

“The economic and emotional stress is immeasurable. If one bad thing were
to happen … that’s the fear that shrouds our lives,” said Claire Kaplan, U.Va.’s Sexual Assault Education Coordinator who happens to be the gay faculty member mentioned above. She has discovered that many in the University community“ have no clue some of their colleagues don’t have the same benefits.”

Regardless of one’s personal opinions about homosexuality, a new Virginia law, HB 751, which as of July 1 prohibits civil unions and contracts between people of the same sex, may have repercussions for U.Va., Kaplan said. She has already heard that an outstanding, sought-after graduate student turned down U.Va. due to HB 751. Although her job offering services for sexual assault education is activist in nature, Kaplan has dusted off an unofficial role she has taken on from time to time: promoting gay rights. This past year, she helped revive U.Va. Pride, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Faculty, Staff and Graduate Student Association. U.Va. Pride joined a statewide education and lobbying network, Equality Virginia, to organize a June 30 rally in Charlottesville s protesting the new law. Kaplan said she sees awareness and support from allies growing, with almost 400 people turning up for the rally, and hundreds more attending similar events held around the state the same day.

A native Southern Californian, Kaplan came to U.Va. in 1991 having already “come out” as a lesbian. Over the years she has seen the University take steps to provide a more inclusive and safer environment — by allowing space for the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center in Newcomb Hall, for example. Students, she said, are more accepting and further ahead on related issues than faculty and staff.

“The Women’s Center, where the Sexual Assault Education Office is housed, also offered a welcoming environment, making it“ a good place to work since day one,” she said.

“Gay people have to make their own individual decisions about whether to come out every single day of their lives,” Kaplan pointed out.

When it comes to bias against homosexuals, “most straight people change their
minds when they get to know someone who is gay or lesbian” and become more accepting, she has found. But she knows other employees who have changed jobs because of fear of reprisals if they came out about their sexual orientation. HB 751, presented by Virginia Del. Robert Marshall, R-Manassas, and known as the Affirmation of Marriage Act, came to the legislative session late, in reaction to the national efforts legalizing same-sex marriage in other parts of the country.

Proponents argued, among other things, the bill was necessary to preserve basic moral values, as well as maintain the value of the institution of marriage and the status of children.

The new law states that “a civil union, partnership contract or other arrangement between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage is prohibited. Any such civil union, partnership contract or other arrangement entered into by persons of the same sex in another state or jurisdiction shall be void in all respects in Virginia and any contractual rights created thereby shall be void and unenforceable.”

Some gay-rights supporters fear the law could be applied to arrangements that address child custody, hospital visitation rights, property rights and taxes, and health and life insurance benefits.

“We call it the ‘marriage discrimination act,’” Kaplan said. The ACLU has already filed a lawsuit challenging the law.

In the meantime, the new law could put U.Va. in an awkward position. “The struggles here to make the University a safe place for gays and lesbians are hamstrung,” she said. Kaplan would like to see U.Va. and other state universities and colleges make the case that this law will negatively affect recruitment and will prompt good scholars and teachers to head for states where they are assured tolerance and equal rights.


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