Monday, June 8, 2009

The Old Story, Contining Discrimination in the Heartland: The Case of Joseph Quigley and the Oklahoma City School Board

On Saturday, I wrote that, as we remember the Stonewall events and how far our nation has come since then, towards recognition of the full personhood of gays and lesbians and of the human rights that must flow from that recognition, we cannot allow ourselves to forget that in a majority of states in the U.S., there are no laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBT persons in the workplace, housing, healthcare provision, hospital visitation rights, etc.

I said, “In the large majority of states in the United States, someone can be fired solely because he or she is gay or lesbian, can be denied housing merely because he is LGBT, can be refused appropriate medical care or barred from visiting his or her partner in the hospital simply because of his or her sexual orientation.”

I urged those who are fighting for gay marriage and celebrating the achievements the gay community has made since Stonewall not to forget the reality with which many gay and lesbian citizens of the country live on a daily basis. I noted that Steve and I have experienced brutal, life-altering discrimination in Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, and North Carolina, simply because we are gay, and that none of those states affords any legal protection to LGBT citizens.

A story on Pam Spaulding’s House Blend blog today is a reminder of why we cannot celebrate victory for human rights in New England, while ignoring the reality of places like Arkansas, Florida, Utah, South Carolina, or Oklahoma. Pam Spaulding reports that the Oklahoma City school board recently recommended the termination of Northwest Classen High School teacher Joseph Quigley.

The grounds of dismissal? School Superintendent Karl Springer says that he “wasn’t following plans for improvement and didn’t obey administrative directives.”

Quigley, who has been with the school district since 1994 and whose record as a teacher and employee has been stellar, says that something else is going on. He “advocated for better protections for gay and lesbian students.”

And when he did so, the legal counsel for the school district “relied on trumped up and exaggerated charges to make the case for his dismissal.”

Quigley notes that up to 2007, his evaluations were consistently high. In 2006, however, he advocated the inclusion of “sexual orientation” in groups listed in the Student Handbook to be protected from harassment and bullying.

At that point, Quigley maintains, his administrators “singled him out, applied a double standard, micromanaged him and . . . instituted a relentless scorched earth policy to get rid of him.” His supervisors appointed an evaluator for him who ranked him as substandard. And now he finds himself faced with termination.

This is precisely the kind of situation I had in mind when I wrote that we cannot let our celebration of LGBT progress since Stonewall obscure the reality with which many LGBT citizens live on a daily basis throughout our nation—and, in the case of Joseph Quigley, it appears, the reality with which even those who stand up for the rights of LGBT citizens though are not themselves gay live. I know this because I’ve been there. I find Quigley’s story easy to believe because I have lived my own versions of this story.

As I’ve noted in previous posting on this blog, in 1993, I found myself faced with an unexplained one-year terminal contract at Belmont Abbey College near Charlotte, North Carolina. I received the contract only days after I had been given a glowing annual evaluation by the Academic Vice-President, who told me that my teaching record was outstanding, I had published in a single year more articles than the rest of the faculty combined, I had performed valuable service to the university and community.

But I was to receive a terminal contract. When I asked why, in light of the evaluation he had just given me, he informed me that he had no obligation to provide a reason for recommending a one-year terminal contract. A few days later, the college president asked to see me, told me the same thing, and informed me that there was a reason he would not disclose, which legal and professional counsel had advised him not to disclose. He informed me he was ethically conflicted about proceeding this way, but chose to do what was legal if not ethical.

I then appealed to the college’s grievance committee, who upheld my appeal and asked that the president provide a written reason for the one-year terminal contract. The president responded with a letter telling me he had given me the reason and the case was closed. I was then removed as chair of the theology department, and when the abbot of the monastery that owns the college would not meet with me to hear my appeal to church authorities for support in a crushing, immoral situation in which all other authority figures seemed to be slamming the door in my face, I resigned.

And found myself without any support—at all—as I sought recourse, any recourse at all. Attorneys told me that right-to-work states like North Carolina don’t have to provide any reason for terminating anyone. Academic accrediting bodies told me that they could not enforce their guidelines regarding academic freedom by censuring a school that violated those guidelines, as long as that school had grievance procedures in place. LGBT advocacy organizations quickly dismissed my pleas for assistance, telling me they could not intervene in employment disputes—even though the president had told a student after I resigned that “lifestyle issues” played a role in my receiving a terminal contract, and did not deny having said this when my attorney wrote a warning letter to him about his statement.

This all took place in 1993. Down the road, in 2007, I relived the experience in Florida, at another church-related institution in another right-to-work state with no laws protecting LGBT citizens from discrimination. Though Steve and I were invited to take a job at a United Methodist college there by someone we considered a friend, who claimed to support gay rights, and though we met with the board prior to our hiring and were assured support as an openly gay couple, we quickly found ourselves in the hot seat, when the state’s United Methodist Conference split down the middle the very day we arrived in Florida, re: whether gays and lesbians can even join Methodist churches.

And though my “friend” had written a glowing evaluation of me as she left the school in Arkansas at which she had first hired me—an evaluation telling me I was the best academic dean she had ever encountered—when it became inconvenient for my “friend” to support openly gay employees at her new place of employment, I suddenly found myself informed that I had “served” her well at her previous institution, but not in Florida.

My work—the same hard work I had always done—was suddenly second-rate, sloppy. I was not “aggressive” enough, too laid-back. I spent time emailing—though that's precisely how academic administrators now communicate with the campus community on a daily basis, and though those emails were chock-full of precious documents on which I had labored nights, weekends, during vacation time, documents necessary to keep the university running and accredited.

And, oh, by the way, I had put my “lifestyle” in the face of the university community by recommending that faculty consider, among a large list of other organizations promoting civic engagement, GLSEN—Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

Steve and I received written instructions not to take each other on doctors’ visits. We were told that we should not drive to school in the same car or take lunch together. A straight couple who were, it was widely reported on the campus, involved with each other though each was married to someone else, were permitted to travel together constantly, no questions asked. Steve and I were told we might not do so, not without jumping through hoop after hoop and being demeaned every time we asked to take a trip together to any academic meeting.

Prior to terminating me, my supervisor-“friend” brought in an outside evaluator to create a bogus, undocumented case against me. This young man is a Baptist Sunday School teacher who has written homophobic articles about the construction of black masculinity. Though I was told he was coming to advise me about preparation for accreditation, he sat with me for an hour, berating me and informing me (who am years older than he is, whom he had never met, about whose academic background he knew nothing) that I was not “aggressive” enough to be a good academic vice-president, and that I did not understand the culture of historically black colleges and universities.

When I told him I had taught at and worked in HBCUs for fifteen years at that point, he was surprised. He had not been informed. He was prepared to destroy the career of a man he had never met, about whom he knew nothing, without even seeking to inform himself about that man whose livelihood he was taking away.

I was terminated without having ever seen this “evaluation,” without having been given a chance to respond to it or to counter its damaging false charges about my work record. I learned of it only when a memo prepared by my supervisor-“friend” for her board, to justify my termination, fell into my hands. A secretary later told me the contents of the “evaluation,” and told me it was circulated—without my knowledge or consent, without my having even seen it—among some faculty and staff on the campus. She knew this because it passed through her own hands in that process; she and other secretaries read the “evaluation.”

And, when it came to my ability to defend myself against such grossly immoral and unprofessional treatment—at a church-owned institution—what had changed from my first experience of such treatment at a Catholic college in 1993, to my next experience at a United Methodist university in 2007? Nothing. Nothing at all.

Just as happened at Belmont Abbey College in 1993, just as Mr. Quigley is now experiencing in Oklahoma City, in 2007 in Florida, I found myself up against a battery of high-powered, well-paid attorneys who appeared to be utterly tone-deaf to the ethical dimensions of their defense of injustice premised on homophobia, and who appeared eager to participate in the gay-bashing, if gay-bashing is the price one must pay to protect the “right” of employers to terminate anyone at will, without providing a reason.

In 2007, I found myself with the same lack of any legal basis at all to challenge the action of this church-related school in a right-to-work state with no laws forbidding discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. I was told in 2007 as I had been told in 1993 that juries are not likely to be sympathetic to anyone experiencing clear, provable discrimination—no matter now gross—on grounds of sexual orientation. Not in places like Charlotte, North Carolina, or in Florida.

Employers know this in places like Charlotte or Florida, and they are absolutely, unscrupulously willing to play the gay card to destroy someone's career and reputation, even in (and perhaps especially in) church-related institutions in such places. Because they can do so. Because doing so is effective. It works. It still works.

The second time around, I knew better than to take my case to accrediting bodies. I did contact one of the leading LGBT legal advocacy groups, and learned that they considered the case meritorious—but would not promise any help, if I entered into an expensive legal battle that I was unlikely to win. A battle I could not risk undertaking without any support, when my “friend” had promised Steve and me jobs up to our retirement, causing us to take out a second mortgage that we could not afford, without the jobs she offered us.

To add insult to injury, my supervisor and former friend hired as my replacement someone who had taught at the very school in North Carolina that kicked me to the curb in 1993, though that hiring didn’t work out at all well when my replacement found herself subject to treatment similar to the kind I had received, though without the sexual orientation component.

As I say, I understand Joseph Quigley’s story. It’s an old story. It’s a story about the ways in which institutions—school boards, churches, employers, and so forth—in a majority of the states in this country have long treated and continue to treat LGBT citizens. And get away with it.

Because there are no laws—no federal laws, laws like the ones that finally afforded legal protection to women and people of color—to prevent such discrimination in the large majority of states in this nation. And because many LGBT advocacy groups choose to write off their brothers and sisters who experience heinous, constant discrimination in many places in the land. Our stories are not the ones that command the headlines. And what are we doing, in any case, living in places like Oklahoma, Arkansas, Florida, and North Carolina? Don’t we have the sense and the initiative to go to places more enlightened?

And most of all, because people do not want to stand up to the churches, which determine much of what happens in these homophobic places, and which are powerful institutions. And this includes not merely the defiantly, brutally homophobic churches, but those whose homophobia is more subtle and refined—the churches that tell you their hearts and doors and minds are open, but do not want to know that you are gay, so that if you attend these churches or work in their institutions, you’d be advised to keep your “lifestyle” to yourself.

These are the churches that profess to be “compassionate” and “tolerant,” but which are quick to blame you if you find yourself crosswise with them or their institutions or any powerful social institutions, and happen to be gay. Then, you discover, you’re “angry” and have merited the treatment dished out to you. Then, you find that even your friends in those churches will often turn their back on you and refuse to listen to your critique of the gap between their inclusive rhetoric and the excluding mechanisms of their congregations and institutions.

These churches do not want to hear gay voices and gay stories or to encounter real-life gay lives. They want the luxury of thinking of themselves as loving, healing presences in society, when they make no effort at all to create forums in which to permit their gay members to speak out, or to make their presence in the church known.

Not much has changed, from 1993 to 2007. Not in places like Kansas or Texas or Utah or Idaho or Arizona—or Arkansas, Florida, the Carolinas, and so on.

And not much is going to change, until 1) those who claim to be allies of and advocates for gay people stand up and make themselves heard, and stop defending, protecting, and collaborating with those who make our lives miserable; 2) the federal government does what it did in the 1960s with civil rights for African Americans, and what it has done to protect and promote women’s rights; and 3) LGBT communities and their organizations stop ignoring their brothers and sisters in the heartland.

We are indeed everywhere, we who are gay and lesbian. But for some of us, there is not much of a “there” there, and that's not going to change until folks stop talking about doing unto others and start really doing.