Upon finding out that the love of her life had multiple sclerosis, L.J. Tessier, professor of philosophy and religious studies, wanted nothing more than to be able to take care of her family.
The only problem was, at the time she found out, Youngstown State University did not extend benefits to faculty members in same-sex relationships.
Tessier and her partner, Tara McKibben, have been in a relationship for over 22 years and have shared a home together on the city’s North Side since 1991.
“I refuse to get married if it will not be recognized,” Tessier said.
But she still wanted the ability to take care of her family.
Julia Gergits, YSU-OEA president and English professor, said that negotiations began in 2002 to make an agreement that would allow faculty members’ same-sex partners to use their benefits.
Tom Shipka, professor of philosophy and religious studies, was chairman of the Academic Senate at the time the proposal to allow insurance benefits for same-sex partners was going through the approval process.
“Two campus unions had tried unsuccessfully to secure domestic partner benefits in contract negotiations over the years, and that’s why I took the Senate route,” Shipka said in an email.
“My role, historically, on domestic partner benefits at YSU was to propose approval of it by the Academic Senate and then by the YSU Board of Trustees. As I recall, the Senate approved it unanimously,” Shipka added.
It was officially added into employee contracts in 2005.
Today Tessier and other faculty members can use their insurance benefits for their partners as married couples do.
To prove Tessier and McKibben are together, they had to fill out a form with Human Resources, which included a “promise of punishment” section in case they were not together.
“They even check if married couples are still married,” Gergits said. “The university has the right to dismiss anyone who falsifies records of any kind.”
One of McKibben’s medications costs nearly $4,000 for a 28-day supply. Prior to being diagnosed with MS she worked as a registered nurse and English teacher to Korean students. She is medically prevented from working now.
She takes a number of medications to control her symptoms and requires periodic treatment for multiple sclerosis exacerbations.
“For years, we were caught in a desperate double bind. Benefits at YSU were extended only to the spouses of married faculty. I, of course, was legally prevented from marrying Tara,” Tessier said.
For a while Tessier and McKibbon were able to purchase medication through a benefit created by friends.
“These funds eventually ran out, and without domestic partner benefits it would have been essential for me to relocate,” Tessier said.
Tessier said it’s more of an equity issue than a moral issue to her.
“I have the same basic right to protect my family and provide for them that my colleagues enjoy,” Tessier said.