University Students on Hunger Strike in Fight for Gay Rights

April 22, 1999 12:00 am

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PITTSBURGH, PA — A group of University of Pittsburgh students are in the eleventh day of a hunger strike, protesting the school’s refusal to extend medical benefits to the lesbian partner of a former writing instructor, the Associated Press reported today.

The 22 students told AP they will end their hunger strike if the Board of Trustees meets with them.

“I don’t feel that starvation is any worse than discrimination,” said Robin Moll, 25, a senior creative writing major who has dropped 20 pounds since the strike began. “I collapsed and was rushed to hospital…under the extreme duress of having to continue this hunger strike for so long.” She and other students at a news conference wore T-shirts that read “Hunger Strike for Human Rights.”

The dispute began three years ago when instructor Deborah Henson and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint with the city’s Human Relations Commission accusing the school of violating a city ordinance banning discrimination against gays and lesbians.

In denying health benefits to her partner, Henson alleges, the University violated the Pittsburgh Human Relations Act, which prohibits discrimination in employment, including discrimination in compensation on the basis of sexual orientation.

According to AP, the university argued that the city has no authority to enforce the law because the state of Pennsylvania does not have such a statute. State law provides protection based on race, color, religion, age, sex, nationality and disabilities but not sexual orientation.

Gay rights advocates told the news service that the university’s action threatens civil rights laws in Pittsburgh and other Pennsylvania cities.

“If you remove the ordinance, it would be perfectly legal to discriminate against gay people in Pittsburgh,” ACLU volunteer attorney Christine Biancheria told AP.

The students have told news reporters that the University’s leading officials have ignored them, despite the serious effects of their hunger strike.

“On the 15th day of the hunger strike, we are disappointed and angry,” student Shandra Williams said at a news conference on April 26th. “Administrators have shown callous contempt and disregard for our concerns. We will not go away, this hunger strike is not over.”

The ACLU’s previous newswire on the case is at /news/1999/w020599c.html; a news release and related documents can be found at /news/n011096.html.

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