Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Everybody Has a Story: Updating You on Recent Events in My Husband Steve's and My Life

Weeks back, I alluded to a hard patch through which Steve and I have been walking, and told you readers of Bilgrimage that I would say more about this when the time was ripe. I am now free to talk. I shared the following statement on Facebook yesterday. I feel a certain ambivalance about making this story public, and I think the ambivalence arises from my concern that I not target the individuals who created this hard patch for Steve and me.

On the other hand, I think there are multiple dimensions to this story that make it a story people should hear — a story about how some folks in our society are always capable of being treated by those with power, and about how (as it seems to me) the Trump period is unleashing a particular kind of nastiness that is resulting in more and more "little" people being targeted in nasty ways. Here's my statement on Facebook yesterday:

It's July 1 and I'm now free to share something I haven't been free to talk about for a number of months. If you think I'm just a loose-cannon loudmouth always singing a sad song, you may not want to read further. If you're genuinely interested in my life and Steve's (and, I'd suggest, the lives of other gay people and gay couples in our world), then you may be interested in what I have to say now.

At the end of March, the day before my 69th birthday, Steve was called into the office of his new boss, a newly hired 37-year-old woman. When he entered the office, the head of personnel was there, and three stacks of paper were sitting on the supervisor's desk. As well as he understood the three stacks, since he was in shock and totally unprepared for this "ambush," as he calls it, he understood that one told him he could be fired that day, one said that he could opt to claim he was retiring at the end of June, and one was some kind of hybrid of the two.

Naturally, he took the option of FORCED retirement at the end of June — and I have not spoken out before now, because we did not want to jeopardize the salary payments that would be made to him through the end of June. We had sound reason to believe that his employer, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, could respond with hostility to my speaking out.

Our reason for thinking this was possible: the contract he signed on the spot on March 29 stated that he would be on call to work — but not in his office, only at home — up to the end of April. Several days later, he was called in to help train the two people hired to replace him, and the new supervisor told him that he had signed a contract stipulating that he would be required to be on call through the end of June. He begged to differ, and when he returned home, emailed to her the contract he had signed, which plainly stated he'd be on call up to the end of April.

She responded by asking if he wanted to be fired outright. We consulted a lawyer, who told us that in Arkansas (and we knew this), employees pretty much have to accept what an employer dishes out to them, since this is a right-to-work state. The lawyer advised Steve to sign no new papers, but to keep working as they demanded up through the end of June — and he did so. They did contact him and tell him that they had made a "mistake" in the wording of the contract and wanted him to sign a new one, but he refused to do that, and at that point, they backed down.

Steve had been at UAMS as a development-fundraising person for 11 years. He had brought in millions by fundraising and grantwriting. His annual evaluations were always glowing. It was never a secret to him that there was a kind of glass ceiling for him there (and for others). He often found working there very stressful for that reason, though he tried not to bring that stress home and talk about it — but I could see it in his body language.

When he finished 10 years, he didn't think about this much, but there was no 10-year anniversary celebration for him akin to the ones offered to other employees. Some time after that 10-year mark passed, someone came to him and told him they had found his 10-year plaque sitting in a storage closet. It had never even been presented to him.

Steve will turn 68 this month. He was never consulted by anyone supervising him at UAMS about retirement plans. He and I had talked about his retirement, and had decided he'd continue working at UAMS up to September 2020, at which point we'll have paid the mortgage on our house and will find it much easier to exist on our two fixed incomes as retirees.

We were very much looking forward to that point, of course, most of all, so that he would no longer have the burden of working at a workplace where he was not appreciated by some people, and not treated well by some people — including, it's clear to him, the person who compiled what he calls the "hit list" used to terminate him and others. Though he was well-respected by many people on the campus and by donors, some of whom have told us they are so angry at what UAMS has done to him that they've written the top adminstrators of UAMS to say they will no longer give to the institution after it did this to a person they esteem so much….

He was not the only person in his division "ambushed" and fired on that day. Six or seven others were, too. We've talked to some of them. They, too, were not consulted in advance. Like Steve, they were informed that this was it, take it or leave it, stripped of their employee i.d.'s, told not to go back to their office — and goodbye, keep warm and well-fed. Steve found that treatment deeply insulting. He asked the new supervisor half his age why she had not done him the courtesy to talk to him about his retirement plans, and she snapped back, "Everyone has a story."

It goes without saying that all of this has created grief and anxiety for us, especially about managing our finances up to September 2020 when, God willing, we'll be free of our house note payments. At the same time, I'm trying to see all of this in a positive light, as a chance for Steve to be free of that unhappy workplace sooner, and for the two of us to have more time to spend with each other now.

The public is being told, by the way that UAMS is not laying folks off and has negotiated the financial crisis that caused it to fire lots of people the year before. But we hear from folks who are in the know that what the public is being told and what is happening are not the same thing, and that "quiet" terminations continue taking place. The media appear disinterested in reporting on this, and in Steve's and my case, the only local media outlet that might consider reporting on it, our statewide independent weekly, is headed by a man who has never been anything but hostile to us and who remains hostile right to the present.

I resigned from all the committees on which I was giving my time and talent to UAMS the day they did this to Steve. I gave hard work for a long time on several committees there, and was asked to represent UAMS on committees beyond the campus. I told them that I cannot any longer give my time and talent to an institution that treats employees this way, and don't want to represent them in the public eye when they are capable of such behavior.

I find it outrageous that any employee of an institution dedicated to the mission of healing could say, when asked why she had not spoken about his retirement plans to a person whose head she was chopping off, "Everyone has a story."

Everyone does, indeed, have a story, and that's a central point taught in every manual about healing that I have ever read. You cannot heal people if you do not seek to know, hear, and respect their story. It's appalling that a young brand-new supervisor terminating the senior member of her department after 11 years of outstanding service would respond to his question about why she did not do him the courtesy of talking to him beforehand by quipping sarcastically, "Everyone has a story."

So that's my story for today. I'm not claiming that this all happened to Steve due to his having a same-sex spouse, though it was always apparent to him and to me that there was prejudice among some of the folks in positions of authority over him. Nor am I claiming that this was age discrimination — but 67 years old, going on 68, and with 11 years of service, and this is how they reward his work and show respect for his seniority?

It does feel very much like things that have happened to us previously, as Steve has said repeatedly in the past few months — things we can definitely attribute to homophobic prejudice. And it hurts all the more for that reason, and because we are as powerless to challenge the powers that be in this situation as we were in those previous ones. 

If I had to guess — and this is only a guess with no proof behind it — about any possible factor leading to the decision of the person who compiled the "hit" list when Steve was terminated (we do know her identity), it's that there may have been discontent among some of the powers that be in the adminstration at UAMS at the political views I express freely on my blog and social media. We've always been aware that there were folks at Steve's workplace monitoring my social media feed, and as the country turns ever more Trumpian and nasty people in positions of authority everywhere decide that they can get away with treating the little people like dirt, I think we'll only see more of this kind of thing happening, especially in places like Arkansas, and frequently to LGBTQ people — especially in places like Arkansas.

But I'm not employed by anyone and surely have a right to my free speech and my opinions, though I'm realistic enough to know that some employers will definitely look askance at an employee whose spouse says things in public that the employer imagines are unsayable. I have also always tried to be respectful to others even when I disagree with them, since that's how I was raised to be — so I don't let myself spout off in rude, dismissive, vulgar ways at others, even they they feel free to dish all of that out to me on social media.

People like Steve and me are simply not valued in places like Little Rock, nor are our gifts, talents, and hard work treated with respect — even by those who benefit directly from them and take freely what we have to offer without acknowledging that we are the ones that have made the offerings, and that our offerings are all the stonger because they proceed from a place of love that is not acknowledged and respected by those blinded by prejudice.

See also this subsequent posting on the same story.

(The photo of Steve and me was taken at Hillcrest Hall near our house in the summer of 2016 by a local photographer, Marcus Rachard.)

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