Diversity at Gallaudet: A New Chapter?

The controversy at Gallaudet University surrounding Dr. Angela McCaskill, the school’s Chief Diversity Officer, who was placed on administrative leave for signing an anti-marriage equality petition, has been smoldering since October. Although it initially received considerable media attention, much of it was focused narrowly on McCaskill as a victim.

As the argument against McCaskill’s action went, her role at the university required that she foster positive diversity outcomes among students and staff, and signing a public petition designed to undo the civil rights awarded legislatively to LGBT individuals gave the impression of her bias against this group.  Those opposed to her actions said she deserved to be reprimanded.

She and her attorney, on the other hand, argued that her actions were protected speech, and she merely believed that important questions such as this should be decided by voters. This reasoning does not pass muster. It ignores the clear intention behind a signature on that petition: to prevent the implementation of marriage equality. McCaskill staunchly defended her history of support for gays and lesbians at Gallaudet, and there is evidence to that effect, with the exception of this marriage issue of course. Up until now, she has refused to state her personal views regarding marriage equality. The petition McCaskill signed was successful and forced a referendum in November that could have overturned marriage rights passed by the legislature and signed by Governor O’Malley.  The referendum in question was defeated on Election Day, and marriage equality is now the law in Maryland.

When the names of petitioners were published, McCaskill’s signature was noticed and became the basis of a complaint by two faculty members. Exactly what occurred in the private discussions that led to her being put on administrative leave in September has not been reported. On January 7th, after three months of silence, and with faculty and students still on winter break, Gallaudet’s President, T. Alan Hurwitz sent out a campus communication announcing that McCaskill had returned to campus and assumed her full-time duties. He thanked members of the campus community for their “overall maturity” and for their “willingness to consider the differing views others may hold.” He went on to say that the diversity work of the university was vital and that he personally looked forward to working with McCaskill.

With the exception of a HuffingtonPost.com article by Josh Swiller, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/josh-swiller/the-real-mistake-at-gallaudet_b_2020046.html , most media attention questioned whether Hurwitz’s administrative leave decision was appropriate or whether McCaskill’s action was protected and irrelevant to her role and position at the university. Swiller, a talented author and journalist, has been deaf since the age of four. He got it right when he focused, not on the free speech question or the knee-jerk calls for her reinstatement from religious leaders, Governor O’Malley, and activist organizations, but on the integrity of diversity efforts at Gallaudet and the needs of its students.  Calls for her reinstatement were likely triggered by political and religious motives and for what the situation represented; not what it meant. Oddly enough, LGBT advocacy groups Equality Maryland and the Human Rights Campaign were among the strongest voices calling for her to be returned immediately to her position. They might be accused of responding with narrowly-focused support for McCaskill, when a more nuanced response supportive of her as well as the students and employees at Gallaudet was warranted. If their statements were driven by fairness, they missed one whole side of the equation, and one could argue that they “sold out” their brothers and sisters.

When conflicts like this flare up between or among marginalized groups, it can be messy, but, seen more positively, they can provide valuable “grist” for the diversity mill. Important lessons can be learned. Sadly, there were many victims in this unfortunate series of events. The matter is larger than race, religion or homophobia. At once, it revealed the complexity of diversity efforts and the potential hazards that exist for those who lead them.

Arguments on both sides of this storm have merit, but the more pressing point is this: How will Gallaudet students and staff recover now that McCaskill has returned to her position? She was reportedly well-liked and respected on campus prior to this incident. Unfortunately, LGBT advocates and their allies will now observe her words and actions through a fractured lens. It’s like Romney’s “47%.” A private attitude has been revealed, and trust must be reestablished. It may not be easy now that months have passed and lawyers have been involved. It would be no surprise if the opposing attorneys had to approve the exact wording of the president’s campus communication before it was distributed. But both sides must have known the healing of this wound was not going to happen in court.

Now it is up to McCaskill and the Gallaudet administration to creatively re-engage campus groups and recover from the messiness.

I’m no stranger to deafness or diversity work. I am a white, gay, hearing male who worked for 25 years at Gallaudet; as an academic administrator for 13 years.  Although I left the university in 1997, I still visit the campus to give an occasional lecture, have lunch with a friend, or support campus activities. As recently as 2008 I returned to my previous position on an interim basis to help the school search for a new dean. I love Gallaudet, and I know the institution well.

During my tenure as dean, our division developed the first diversity training programs of any significance at the university more than 25 years ago.  When I tap into the suspicion, distrust and vitriol caused by these events at the university, I’m reminded of the awkwardness and pain that accompanies frank discussions of audism (discrimination based on hearing status), racism, sexism and homophobia. I know how deep an individual has to dig to admit bias, to eliminate prejudice from thoughts and discrimination from actions. It requires “higher-level” attributes that are difficult to promote in a hot-tempered environment.

It has pained me to see well-intentioned professionals at Gallaudet locked into intractable positions around race, religion and homophobia. I know all the players. I believe each of them deserves respect. Each side has accused the other of intolerance. It must have been hard for President Hurwitz, a straight, white, male, to decide what to do when faced with a complaint from two LGBT faculty members that the actions of his diversity officer gave the appearance of intolerance. It must have been equally difficult for McCaskill to be accused of bias, a charge that impugned her integrity and threatened her livelihood. She is an African American deaf woman who has certainly experienced discrimination based on her race, deafness and gender. The complaining faculty members — one deaf and one hearing — are both lesbians and white. They undoubtedly have experienced discrimination based on their own identities.

But imagine what it was like when LGBT students at Gallaudet first saw the signature of someone they admired, the diversity officer of their university, affixed to that anti-marriage petition. McCaskill’s actions may have felt like a betrayal to them. At the least, they must be struggling to resolve conflicting thoughts and feelings about the events, an unfortunate distraction from their studies.  And I wonder if McCaskill didn’t also feel betrayed when her signature on the petition was reported and she was asked to explain her actions.

We all bleed when wounded and our first instinct is often to secure our borders and hunker down for a siege. But we can also choose to heal by engaging in open and sincere dialogue, with each side accepting the role they played in the melee. The latter is what is needed at Gallaudet. What has happened on campus reflects the tenor of our times. Have we not learned that the struggle for civil rights always finds its way into our classrooms? Isn’t that the way it should be? The situation at Gallaudet is serious, not hopeless, but resolving it will require an enlightened healing process, one that demonstrates diversity principles at work.

My intention was to end this piece with the previous sentence, but something was missing. The file sat untouched in my computer for weeks. Then the ending came to me through a poignant set of events:

I was at my weekend “getaway” in rural West Virginia and had to travel to a nearby city to buy provisions and run errands. I’m not going to name the town for reasons that will become evident . One of the items on my “to do” list was to get a haircut. I’m particular about who cuts my hair. It’s personal. I won’t go to “hair salons” where I might be seated across from a woman in curlers. That doesn’t feel right to me. Never did. So I googled barber shops and came up with a list of three to consider. I picked the one that sounded most like a man’s place — where you can get a clean buzz-cut, a shave or a mustache trim, and the conversation is about RG III and the Super Bowl.

When I pulled up to the small shop on a gravel side street, there was no red, white and blue “barber pole” twirling outside. Was I wrong? Was this going to be one of those unisex places? The lights were out and I couldn’t see inside. I began to question my choice more when I noticed a sign in the window. “Back at 12:30,” it read. That would never happen in the big city. Resolved to make the best of it, I drove around the corner where I had a Subway sandwich and fiddled with my new I Phone.

When I returned and approached the entrance for the second time, I was relieved to find the proprietor had returned. I was not, however, prepared for what would happen next.

I pushed open the door to the sounds of a Venetian blind clacking against plate glass and a bell at the top of the frame jingling my arrival. I glanced down to my right to see a corpulent African American preacher delivering a bombastic sermon on a black and white TV without any sound. He was leaning on a lectern, like its support was essential, his white shirt open at the collar and beads of perspiration dripping from his forehead into his eyes. Gay men have reasons to be wary of conservative preachers. A twinge of tension fluttered across my lower abdomen.

I looked into the low-ceilinged room with white-washed walls divided down the center by back-to-back bookshelves. Perched atop the divider were a dozen or so styled wigs offered for sale to clients who obviously did not share my gender. This had to be a business that catered to African Americans and likely more to women than men.

Decision time. I could easily retreat back out the door without causing a stir. Surely, the proprietor would understand. But I was feeling open. I might have had a thought that there was something there for me. Besides, I sure needed a haircut. I walked to the right of the divider and saw three, weathered salon chairs against the back wall with cracked, lime-green, vinyl seats. The counter behind them had a sparse array of hair products, most of them unfamiliar to me and probably created for women of color. It dawned on me that I hadn’t seen the barber yet. Was he or she even there?

I was startled when a demure, middle-aged, African American woman rose slowly from a folding chair in a shadowed corner with an open bible in her left hand. She was dressed simply with her own wig that was much less flattering than the ones on display.

“Would you like a haircut?” she asked.

“Why, yes I would,” I responded, telling myself that everything would be fine – perhaps not believing it, but saying it nonetheless. She pulled her bible’s fabric bookmark into place, then closed and placed the text in a cubby beneath the wigs.

“How about right here?” she asked, inviting me to sit in the center chair. She moved swiftly to the front of the shop where she turned up the volume on the preacher who was still going strong. His deep, raspy voice was as forceful as I had imagined. Ministers who channel an angry god and berate humans for their sinfulness make me uncomfortable. That’s what I thought I was hearing, so I vowed to engage my barber in conversation.

She asked how I would like my hair cut.  “Number one on the sides and number four on top,” I said, deciding to keep it simple. As the clippers whirred behind my left ear, I asked her how long she had worked there.

“Six months,” she said. “I used to work out of my home but decided to get my own place now that my daughter’s out of the house.”

“Not long then. How’s it going?” I asked.

“I can’t complain,” she answered. “What kind of work do you do?”

“I’m a licensed professional counselor.”

“My, my, that must be rewarding,” she said. “Do you work with any particular group of people?” I couldn’t say gays and lesbians. That was TMI for my first haircut and for the situation. The proof of that came when the preacher growled from across the way about sinners who “. . . do exactly what they want, when they want, no matter what the scripture teaches.”

“I specialize in trauma and PTSD,” I said, mindful of the irony in the moment.

“Oh, that’s good. You have children? You married?” she asked. These are routine questions in casual conversation, because heterosexuality is always the presumed orientation. Although our conversation had indeed been casual, there was nothing routine about the circumstances. The tension in my stomach quivered again.

Out of the black box across the room the preacher shouted: “You can run . . . you can run, my friends, but you CAN-NOT hide! Lay DOWN your will and your life! BEG his forgiveness! Only then will you relish in his salvation.” By that time I was in full-freak, and I had to come up with answers to her questions. I chose to be honest.

“Yes, I have a son and a daughter – both grown – and I have a partner. I’m gay.” I braced myself for what might come.

“I see . . .” That was it. Nothing more. Silence lingered in the air like smoke trapped in a test tube. She asked how long my partner and I had been together.

“Fifteen years,” I answered. I wondered if she thought that was unusual.

“Can I ask you a question?” she asked. I could tell she was slowly opening a door.

“Sure,” I said uneasily, anticipating a conversion attempt.

“I have a daughter who’s twenty. Last year she told me she was . . . uh . . . interested in . . . she said she wanted to be with . . . um . . . a woman.” She had a hard time getting that out. “I wasn’t sure what to do or to say to her, because my church doesn’t believe in that. I love my daughter, and I don’t want to push her away. I’m trying to do the right thing.” From her emphasis, I knew “doing the right thing” was a compelling value of hers. “I feel like I should love her no matter what,” she said. “She’s my girl! I want to love her the best way I can, you know?” She paused. It was my turn.

I was flabbergasted, of course. What could I say to this treasure of a mother who chose love of child over ritual, who accepted her daughter as she was meant to be?

“I’m guessing from the reverend on TV that you’re a woman of faith,” I said. “So I can imagine how difficult this has been for you. But I’ll tell you what I think,” I said confidently. “I wish I had a mother like you when I came out 25 years ago. You would have made it so much easier for me. You’re doing right by your daughter. You know, we don’t choose to be this way. That’s a lot of hooey. It’s the way we are. It’s what’s natural for us — as natural as night goes to day and day goes to night.” I told her my coming out story and how my mother had shrieked, run down the hall and slammed the door when I gave her the news. I told her how fortunate her daughter was to have her for a mother.

Our conversation took off like thoroughbreds out of the gate. I told her more about myself than friends I’ve had for years know – all the truth I could impart during a 15 minute haircut (I don’t have much on top these days). She, on the other hand, kept repeating: “I’m just trying to love her the best way I can.” It was her mantra. At one point she did say she hoped it was a phase her daughter would get over some day. I tried to explain how that message might force her daughter  to try to be straight to please her, in the same way I had for my mother — and the pain she might suffer as a result. I said I believed God made her daughter just the way He intended.

At the end of her work she swiveled me around to face the mirror on the wall and held a small mirror at the back of my head for approval. “Very nice,” I said. “You’ve done a great job!” I liked what I saw – not just the neat trim she had given me. The pleasant, knowing, soft smile I saw on her face warmed my insides.  As I prepared to leave, I asked her name.

“Jackie,” she said (not her real name).

“Jackie,” I said, “Who would have thought that we would come together like this today and have this conversation? I’m not sure what you believe, but do you think it’s possible someone had a hand in this?”

“Perhaps,” she said. “Could well be.”

“It’s been a pleasure talking with you. I wish you the best.”

“You too.”

I opened the door with the blind clacking and the bell jingling again, aware that I felt very different than when I had entered. The preacher was bellowing his message to my left, but I was unaffected by his thunder. I hesitated, turned back, took out a business card and placed it in Jackie’s hand. “I’m not sure why I’m giving you this,” I said. “Sounds like you’re doing a fine job with your daughter, but if you or she ever wants to talk, feel free to give me a call.”

I’ve withheld her name and the location of her business to protect her. Coming out of the closet can still be unsafe, even for a parent. During our conversation she told me she had confided in her husband and her mother, but she didn’t feel comfortable talking to her “church family” about her daughter — maybe because she was going to love her no matter what, and she might not want to hear what they would say. Maybe she felt as unsafe as I when I entered her shop. Maybe she feared being attacked for loving her daughter the best way she knew how.

This is a time when the rights of marginalized groups are under siege. Whether it is marriage equality for LGBT citizens, a person of color’s right to vote without a government ID, a woman’s reproductive rights, a Muslim’s right to hold high office, or a Latino’s right to citizenship, our paths to acceptance and full expression should not be obstructed. Neither should we be obstructing our brothers and sisters, for reasons of our own, as we pursue freedoms — especially when it comes to the diversity efforts at Gallaudet as the university begins writing a new chapter in 2013.

There’s wisdom in loving others as ourselves and doing it “the best way we know how.”







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One Response to Diversity at Gallaudet: A New Chapter?

  1. Darlene Ewan says:

    Beautiful article, Mike.

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