Friday, September 19, 2008

An Open Letter to Barack Obama: HBCUs and Homophobia

Dear Mr. Obama:

To address this open letter to you, I am interrupting a thread on this blog that touches on painful personal experiences of homophobia in my professional life. Those experiences have resulted in my being unemployed and without health insurance at age 58—despite my proven track record of hard, productive, successful work.

My unemployment and lack of access to health care have everything to do with the fact that I have chosen not to hide that I am openly gay, and have lived my entire adult life in a committed relationship with another openly gay man.

Despite my lack of income and the dwindling of the scant retirement funds I’ve been able to save while working in church-owned universities (most of them HBCUs), I have donated repeatedly to your campaign. I have done so because I support your policies. I am working hard in every way I can to assist your election.

I have been particularly impressed by your willingness to address the unconscionable stigmatization and marginalization of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons in our democratic society. I have noted with delight your willingness to speak truth about the ugliness of homophobia to your own African-American brothers and sisters.

When you challenged homophobia at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta last January, I was moved profoundly—as I was also moved by your courage when you addressed these issues again before an audience not likely to share your views in Beaumont, Texas, in February. I have been equally impressed with your wife’s clarity and courage about these issues. I appreciate your support and that of your wife. This is among the reasons you have my vote, as well as that of many members of my family.

For this reason, I am respectfully asking you to think about your opportunity and responsibility, as you speak at HBCUs, to continue calling your own African-American brothers and sisters, and our nation at large, to recognize and address the ugly phenomenon of homophobia. I note that you will speak tomorrow at an HBCU in Daytona Beach—Bethune-Cookman University. I feel certain that you will be speaking at a number of HBCUs during this campaign.

This is as it ought to be. HBCUs have played a significant and often unrecognized role in the educational life of our nation. They have historically graduated, and they continue to graduate, the majority of African Americans who go on to earn doctorates in the U.S.

However, as I am sure you are aware, many HBCUs lack policies prohibiting discrimination against gay faculty, staff, administrators, and students. I have addressed these issues repeatedly on this Bilgrimage blog. A search of the blog for the term “HBCU” will link anyone who wants to examine this issue to numerous studies and statements about the track record of HBCUs, vis-à-vis homophobic discrimination.

I believe I have a right (and an obligation) to address the issue of anti-gay discrimination in HBCUs for a number of reasons. First, I’m a citizen who has long worked for equal rights for everyone in our democratic society, and, in particular, for those shoved away from the table of participatory democracy.

Second, I am a theologian whose vocational life has been centered on calling churches and religious groups to greater awareness of the mechanisms by which social structures stigmatize and exclude scapegoated groups. In my view, faith communities do not have the right to expect to command attention as credible moral guides, when, in their own practices, they violate key moral principles including the obligation to reach out and include the marginalized, or the obligation to refrain from harming those already harmed by structures of social exclusion.

Third, at the beginning of my career as a theologian, I deliberately chose to work in HBCUs. At the outset of my career, I had the opportunity either to take a highly paid position at a prestigious majority-culture university, or a modestly paid position at an HBCU, Xavier University in New Orleans.

I chose Xavier, and did so gladly, though my starting salary was $15,500 (to the best of my recollection) in 1984. The impulse to serve and give to those in need that brought me to the vocation of theology in the first place, as well as my history as a white Southerner who came of age in the Civil Rights period, made it obvious to me that I had an important obligation (and graced opportunity) to offer my talents, such as they are, to HBCUs.

In the narrative I am interrupting to address this letter to you, I am speaking forthrightly about the economic effects my choice to work in HBCUs has had on my life and that of my partner Steve Schafer. We both knew when we accepted jobs at HBCUs that we would never enjoy lives of economic luxury.

I spent almost two decades teaching and doing administrative work in HBCUs. During those two decades, from 1984 up to my last year in an HBCU (2006-2007), I never earned a salary in excess of $60,000 until my final year as academic vice-president at an HBCU. At Philander Smith College in Little Rock, I had the honor of serving as academic dean for a number of years. Even in that position—one that involved intense work—I drew a salary of only $29,000 for several years, until the president told me that she considered it an embarrassment to the college that it was paying its dean such a salary.

I am not complaining. I am not seeking to embarrass or adversely affect any particular HBCU, in writing this letter. I knew when I began working at HBCUs that I would not enjoy economic comfort. It was a privilege, an honor, to work in HBCUs, to have the opportunity to give something to a community that has suffered historic marginalization. I gave without expecting thanks.

What I did not expect, however, was to be slapped in the face because I am openly gay. That, unfortunately, was my experience at one HBCU, where, when the harassment began, I discovered, I had no legal recourse to protect myself against misrepresentation of my work record, and deeply personal vilification of my character.

At this institution, I had again been honored to accept the position of academic vice-president, though I was told that the salary I was being offered was some $30,000 less than that offered to my predecessor. It was enough to be wanted, to be needed, to be allowed to serve.

It was a delight, too, to have a salary that permitted me to give more than I had ever been able to give in the past. When I found that my salary included an augment from a state grant program in the amount of $20,000, I divided the augment in half and gave half of that amount to my associate, who, in my view, worked as hard as I did and deserved as much reward. In the year in which my partner Steve Schafer and I worked for this HBCU, together we donated more to the school than all other members of the university leadership team combined.

I will not rehearse the full story. Due to legal threats on the part of the same HBCU that has rewarded my hard work and that of my partner with such shameful and ugly treatment for our years of hard work and sacrifice in HBCUs, I am not even permitted to tell the whole story.

And I know that as a presidential candidate, you can do nothing about a situation of conflict between a former employee and an employer. What you can do, however, and what I believe you must do, to be true to your principles, is to call each and every HBCU at which you speak to accountability regarding issues of sexual orientation.

May I respectfully ask that, if an HBCU at which you speak has no policy forbidding discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, you call the HBCU to accountability about its obligation to forbid such discrimination through official policy statements? Please also call on HBCUs to implement support groups for faculty, staff, and students dealing with issues of sexual orientation. Please ask HBCUs to form task forces to educate their own constituencies, as well as the public at large, about the damage that homophobia does in our society.

Please challenge HBCUs not to harass openly gay employees or students, not to issue written demands that openly gay employees refrain from traveling or making doctors’ visits with their partners, when such demands are not issued to married couples working for the same institution. Please call on HBCUs and their leaders not to demean gay employees and students, and not to punish gay employees and students who promote dialogue about homophobia in the campus community.

The state in which you will be speaking tomorrow is one with an alarming record when it comes to recent incidents of gay-bashing. Historically, HBCUs have been a part of the solution and not a part of the problem, when it comes to significant social issues affecting minorities. The prophetic African-American leader Mary McLeod Bethune, who founded the institution at which you will speak tomorrow, asked that HBCUs create town-hall meetings in which those shoved from the table of participatory democracy could gather together to discuss solutions to the problems they experienced.

Please continue Dr. Bethune’s legacy as you speak at Bethune-Cookman and other HBCUs. Please continue to remind HBCUs of their commitment to include, to refrain from discrimination, to refrain from harming those already harmed by social stigmatization. Please assist all of us who are working for justice within the faith communities of this nation, as we call on those who talk the talk to walk the walk. Faith-based institutions, including HBCUs and their leaders, should not have the luxury of representing themselves as opposed to discrimination, while they practice discrimination towards their LGBT brothers and sisters.

Thank you for hearing my plea. It comes from the heart.

Respectfully yours,

William D. Lindsey.

Note to readers: once again, I would like to call on readers of this blog for any assistance you may be able to offer. I intend in every way possible to circulate this letter and to see that it reaches the attention of Mr. Obama. If blog readers can assist in this task, I will be deeply grateful. My counter shows that 546 people from around the world read this blog the second day after Andrew Sullivan kindly mentioned it on his Daily Dish blog. My hope is that among those readers, someone will have the ability to see that this letter reaches Mr. Obama. Thanks!