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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Subway Cookies and Sex Abuse

Subway has been my addiction for years — more specifically, the chain’s macadamia, white chocolate chip cookies. I’ve rationalized that feeding my habit every day is just reward for struggling through a tuna sub. I hate eating anything that comes from the sea, but I know Omega-3’s are important to my health. I was there two weeks ago for my daily ritual that also involves the Washington Post, the paper that used to be reliably progressive. I’m able to counteract negative energies by savoring my cookies and reading any of the truly liberal articles still occasionally found on the Op Ed page. Pardon my bluntness, but I wish the Post would show less favor to that cantankerous old Charles Krauthammer whose uber-biased analyses tend to trigger attacks of acid reflux.

I ordered my tuna sub as usual, but was shocked when the cashier told me the company would no longer carry my daily fix! Macadamia prices must have skyrocketed. They’d substituted a white chocolate chip cranberry concoction that I hoped would also satisfy my need for a reward, but I had my doubts. Now I won’t say I was totally anxious about the change, but I did wonder how I’d cope without my daily macadamias. I took this as a sign. It was not going to be a good day.

As I swallowed my last bite of tuna and felt my glands salivate in anticipation of a sweet confection, an article on the face of the “Metro” section dampened my growing enthusiasm. “Girl’s grandfather accused of sex abuse” flashed up at me from the page’s lower left quadrant. My desire for the new cookie lost its fervor. I know about these things. I was sexually abused by my father when I was a lad.


The 64 year old grandfather, Mark K. Kleinsorge, a former NASA employee, was indicted in Charles County, Maryland. He was accused of having abused his unnamed granddaughter from the time she was 3 until she turned 14. “Do I really want to be confronted by this just when I’m about to take the first bite of a potentially new delight?” I asked myself. I postponed my cookies and read the article. I’ve always thought that duty should come before pleasure. Just like similar stories I’ve read or heard, the granddaughter kept her secret until age 17, when she feared for the safety of two female cousins. At ages 1 and 3, they were about the same age as she when the abuse began. Forgotten or suppressed memories of abuse are often “reactivated” when a survivor “sees” herself (or himself) in the image of a younger child. Kleinsorge had already been arrested in Florida, because he also allegedly abused the same granddaughter in that state. He is denying the charges, and his Maryland attorney is promising a vigorous defense. It reminded me of Jerry Sandusky and his protestations. Pedophiles don’t see anything wrong with molesting a child.

With the article read and duty satisfied, I gave myself permission to devour the cookies. The first bite was a letdown. Macadamias and white chocolate were made for each other, the perfect combination, yin and yang; dried cranberries and the vanilla chips — not so much. The flavor was tolerable but more disappointment than reward. I questioned whether I should eat or toss the second one. I sighed and returned to the paper where an article in the front section caught my attention.

The headline, attributed to the Associated Press, read “Bishop convicted of failing to report sex abuse.” Robert Finn, of St. Louis, had become the first Catholic bishop convicted in the sex abuse scandal, it reported. He was found guilty of failing to inform the authorities that Rev. Shawn Ratigan, a priest under his charge, had pornographic images of children on his computer. Finn was sentenced to two years of supervised probation for his role in the cover-up, and the diocese was fined $10,000 to support counseling for the children abused by the priest. Ratigan had already pled guilty to charges involving photos he took of children aged 2 to 9. Add this to the recent conviction and sentencing to three years in prison of William Lynn, a Philadelphia monsignor, for knowingly reassigning a pedophile priest that caused another child to be abused, and the disgust intensifies. How could I eat another cookie after “chewing” on that news for a while?

Contrary to how it may seem, I do not believe there’s been a dramatic rise in the incidence of pedophilia; rather a dynamic increase in awareness, prosecutions and persistence in addressing this problem nation-wide. As distasteful as the subject is, as degrading for the victims, and as depressing for family and friends, seeking justice for them is work that must be done. Celebrity survivors like Oprah, Tyler Perry and Don Lemon are stepping up and speaking out. Premier organizations like Male Survivor (www.malesurvivor.org) are increasing efforts to prevent abuse, raising understanding about the plight of survivors and helping them heal.  That’s the good news. It’s what gives each survivor hope – to know that we are not alone, that there are others out there like us, and that we can survive and even flourish after tragedy.

Although I don’t look forward to reading new stories in the media about sexual abuse, rape or incest, I will always take the time to understand what is reported and to see if it requires my action. Like the bonds that war veterans or breast cancer survivors develop, survivors of sexual abuse share common experiences and challenges that make us “siblings under the skin.” We look out for each other, and we appreciate the allies who join us in our efforts to be all that we can be.

I was deep in those thoughts when I cleared my trash from the table that day in Subway. I chose not to eat the second cranberry thing. It wasn’t what I read. I think it really was the cookie. And it wasn’t the end of the world. I’m resilient. I knew I’d find another way to reward myself that might be just as satisfying. I took a deep, cleansing breath, exhaled forcefully and went on with my day.

P.S. Good news! The next day I patronized a Subway closer to home where young El Salvadoran women have taught me how to order my tuna and cookies in Spanish. It seems that the chain had NOT discontinued the macadamia, white chocolate chip cookies after all. The cashier at the other franchise had been mistaken. I can once again enjoy the only addiction I have left and get my Omega3’s as my doctor suggested at the same time. Dos macadamia por favor! Life is good.





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Advocate.com Op Ed

Op-ed: The Counselor Who Sought Help From a Dying Friend

Sobriety and the encouragement from a supportive friend helped Mike Deninger craft a tell-all of his childhood and lend a hand to others looking for closure and clarity.

BY Mike Deninger Ph.D.

August 31 2012 4:00 AM ET

It was in the summer of 1997 when I slept beside Jon Eikenberg at his condo in Baltimore. He was a handsome hulk of a man, a talented artist and AIDS activist known for his satirical comic strip, “The Endearing End of Emmett,” about the ironies of being infected with HIV. I know — sounds funky, but it was darkly clever and won first place in the Vice Versa Awards for Excellence in the Gay and Lesbian Press in 1998.

Jon and I had been casual friends for two years, and although we were definitely attracted to each other, we never had sex. I think we knew a tryst would complicate the relaxed connection we enjoyed. In the middle of the night I pulled a perspiration-soaked white T-shirt over his head, tossed it on the carpet, and dabbed sweat from his forehead and upper torso with a dry towel, a lasting reminder for me of the worst of the plague. It was that same night that he convinced me to get serious about reclaiming my life and writing the painful story I was reluctant to share.

He was intrigued by my history, probably because he delighted in the bizarre. He was an aficionado of the macabre, the convoluted, and the thorny aspects of life. You could see that in his paintings.

Prior to meeting Jon, I had been a prominent educator of deaf children with a stellar 20-year career as an administrator at Gallaudet University. But throughout that period no one knew about the desperation smoldering beneath my surface. I hid my demons well until one Saturday in my late 30s when I was so depressed and anxious I couldn’t move, frozen supine in my family room recliner like a mummy on ice. Until that day I’d been a meticulously closeted alcoholic, depressed, and consumed with anxiety for reasons that were unknown to me. With the help of a good therapist I left the closet, stopped drinking, and pushed off in a new direction. I began studying for a graduate degree in mental health counseling with the intention of embarking on a career as a private practice therapist. Unfortunately, my tumble was not over. One year after I got sober I began to remember events from my childhood that I had not recalled for 40 years.

My overnight with Jon was four years after the turbulence of those recollections. I was stuck in limbo. I finished my counseling degree and took early retirement from Gallaudet, but I had lost interest in becoming a counselor. Worst of all, work on the autobiography I had been drafting for years was at a standstill, all because it was time to write about those unpleasant memories. I told Jon about my fears that night. He equated his need to continue his fight against AIDS with mine to face the past. His advice was firm but sanguine. “That shit has you by the balls anyway,” he chided. “You might as well just turn off the phone, put on some music, sit down and start writing.” And so I did.


Snakes in My Dreams: A Mental Health Therapist’s Odyssey From Hardship to Healer was finally launched this summer, 15 years after that conversation and coming up on 20 years after the memories began returning. The memoir is an account of my enigmatic dreams, forgotten events, self-examination, coming out, strife, and perseverance, all pieced together in a manner that illuminates the interplay between conscious and unconscious thought. As the title implies, it’s a portrayal of my journey from chaos to balance, including a lot of craziness in between.

In addition to completing the book, I did become a licensed counselor and established Phoenix Counseling and Hypnotherapy in Alexandria, Va., where I  specialized in the treatment of LGBT individuals and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I took advanced training in alternative therapies and became a certified trainer and leading proponent of the use of eye movement integration (EMI), a dynamic therapy for resolving symptoms associated with trauma. I have worked with clients as diverse as combat veterans; victims of rape, sexual abuse, and physical assault; 911 first responders; police and fire officials; and others suffering from PTSD.

Now, as a board member at Male Survivor: The National Organization Against Male Sexual Victimization, I’ve joined another fight. View more about the organization at www.malesurvivor.org. It seemed only right that I should. That’s what you do when you learn something that can help others — you pass it on. When I travel the country, whether I’m doing book promotions, sharing my personal story of abuse and recovery, speaking out against all forms of sexual victimization, or teaching the healing qualities of EMI, I think of the Samaritans I met along the way. They’re woven into the stories I tell. Jon was one of them.

Saying that he was the cause of my renewal would be overstating his involvement, although something tells me he would gladly take credit for the lot of it. Jon passed away in 2001 from the disease he so fiercely railed against. I miss him, but I’m ever so thankful that I was there to ease his discomfort that night in 1997, and he was there to tell me to put on some music and sit down and start writing.


For more on Snakes in My Dreams or to read more about Deninger’s work, visit http://www.Deninger.com. 

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Parents and Coming Out Trauma

I was talking with my partner of 15 years tonight about a post and a link that appeared on the Facebook page of a friend. When a young man came out to his family four years ago, his father wrote him a crushing letter cutting off all contact with his son because of his “lifestyle.” Whenever I see that word I hear someone saying, “It’s a choice.” Balderdash. Who really believes that anymore? Now it’s four years later and the young man has just posted an image of his dad’s handwritten letter on the internet for all to see. Of course it went viral. He also said two choice words to his father in response to the letter. I’m sure you can imagine what they were. Read the letter and the story for yourself here:


After I read the letter I recalled a phone conversation I had that day with a very pleasant radio personality. The woman was responding to a press release for my memoir she had received from my media representative. The release explained that I was a survivor of incest, but I had not recalled those events until after I came out as a gay man later in life. It went on to say that I had “triumphed over adversity and found spiritual renewal.” That was the language that caught the woman’s attention.

She represented a Christian radio station. They were searching for an individual to interview who could help listeners understand how sexual abuse increases the potential for behavioral abnormalities (my phrase) in adolescence and adulthood like substance abuse or promiscuity. She volunteered that her father had been a pedophile who victimized her sister and even shot her mother in the back, an angry military vet who wore a pistol on his hip at home. She was not sexually abused by him, but because of his mistreatment,  she had two pregnancies in her teens that she terminated and a child out of wedlock when she was only eighteen.

I had no disagreement with her until she asked if I might help her listeners understand how homosexuality was another behavior resulting from sexual abuse, as if that was also true for me. She even used the word “lifestyle” in the same sentence. Her intention was to help Christians develop more compassion for gay individuals who may have been abused and more understanding of the undesirable behaviors. I took her line of reasoning as some version of, “Hate the sin but love the sinner.”

I politely explained that I did not believe sexual abuse causes homosexuality, or that I was attracted to men because of what my father had done. I added that I had a younger brother who was also gay, and he did not recall being abused by my father. When we each understood how our opinions about homosexuality and abuse were that dissimilar, we wished each other well and ended our conversation.

The young man whose father had shunned him (and, by the way, there are few tactics as devastating as that practice) was certain that his father’s actions were fueled by ultra-conservative voices from the Christian right. He was referring to radio commentators and preachers who use extreme (sometimes violent) rhetoric, and he called out a few of them by name.

I know how it feels to get a letter like that from a parent. I got one from my mother when I came out to her at the age of 45. I included excerpts from it in my memoir “Snakes in My Dreams.” I was afraid to tell her. That’s why it took me so long. And what I feared most — her rejection — is exactly what I got. I might have been more traumatized had I not been prepared for that possibility as a result of my work with a good therapist. And by that time I was comfortable with my sexuality and living openly as a gay man. I had no more questions. I was more resilient than a twenty-year-old.

As a therapist I’ve encountered many young people who have just received their “letters,” or been told they were unworthy or unfit because of an attraction to their own sex. Just as frequently I have worked with older gays and lesbians (even senior citizens) who were still living in shame cast on them by a parent. One woman in her mid 30’s told a story of how her mother had left her standing in the middle of her street and drove off after condemning her for being a lesbian. This young woman was an accomplished international professional with many accolades to her credit, not an underachiever. The depth of her shame was demonstrated when she ran after the car, begging for approval, screaming for her mom to come back. Her mother had known she was a lesbian for over 10 years. It wasn’t news, but she was still demeaning her daughter for her “sin”.

After reading the young man’s letter from his father, I realized how much more strident the comments in my mother’s letter had been. She said she was “abhorred by my reliance on shrinks and soothsayers to chart my course” and called the path I had chosen to follow “morally repugnant” to her. She told me to keep that information to myself several states away from where she lived. Once she was gone, she said, I was free to “shout it from the rooftops.” Wow . . .  That still takes my breath away.

Attitudes conveyed in language like this, or even implied by parents, relatives or friends,  can trigger extreme reactions in young gay, lesbian, transgendered, bisexual or questioning people. I’ve seen how devastated they are when they’re ostracized by their families. Is it any wonder that three times the number of gay and lesbian youth attempt suicide when compared to their straight peers, or that they’re more at risk for depression, substance abuse, and sexual victimization? So be careful parents. You may reap what you sew, and then how will you feel? I suggest you read “Prayers for Bobby” by Leroy Aarons or watch the movie version starring Sigourney Weaver. See what happens when you choose religion over well-being, and a child becomes a prisoner of your prejudice.

But now, let me assure you, there is hope. First, it’s never too late to repair. When my mother rejected me, I stood up to her. I told her I would not tolerate her abusiveness, that I was okay no matter what she said, and she would have to treat me well if I were to be a part of her life. A friend worried that my insistence on acceptance and decency was too much to ask, but I had higher expectations for her. She finally did accept me as I am several years before she passed away. When I sat on her deathbed in the hospital, and we had our final chat, I was able to tell her I was glad we were friends again. We had come full circle. I was the son who once again engendered pride in her. She was the mother I had always wanted but wouldn’t have if we hadn’t resolved our disagreement.

Posting his father’s letter on the internet may not bring the young man’s dad around, but he was right to stand up to his disapproval. His approach may have been overkill — like crushing an ant with a sledgehammer — but we don’t know the family dynamics, so who can say what else may have been at play. I do hope the young man is standing taller these days, feeling better about himself in spite of his father’s closed-mindedness. I also hope that the young man’s dad comes around, just like my mother did.


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Penn State — What to Say?

A college buddy of mine happened to read on Facebook that I was recently appointed to the Board of Directors of Male Survivor: The Organization Against Male Sexual Victimization. He had purchased my memoir, so he likely knew of my own history as a survivor of incest. Jack’s comment to me was something like, “Someday I’d like to get your take on the whole Penn State thing.”

I’ve thought about his request for days. What is there to add to all that’s been said and written? I could be one of the many to take the media to task for their uber-focus on Sandusky, Paterno and their Nittany Lion co-conspirators, instead of on the grueling, life-long harm done to victims of pedophiles. To my knowledge (and I’m a dogged consumer of news on this topic), there has yet to be a thorough analysis of the plight of survivors of sexual trauma at the hands of ruthless men who go after boys. I want to be clear: I’m not suggesting a salacious expose of Sandusky’s victims and what their lives have been.  How about some balanced, compassionate reporting of the long term effects of sexual trauma on survivors?  There are many men out there, including public figures like Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and actor/director Tyler Perry, who have told their stories publicly and whose experiences could be used to develop a complete, caring, yet honest depiction of life after abuse. So that’s my first thought. More focus on the victims, please.

But how to answer Jack’s question about Penn State?

At the center of these crimes is Jerry Sandusky, a classic pedophile whose obsession over sex with boys drove him to risk everything in his efforts to find, befriend, groom and assault his young victims, even blatantly setting up Second Mile, a non-profit for underprivileged kids, as a breeding ground for future prospects. Sandusky was likely abused himself as a child. Statistics confirm that a very high percentage of pedophiles were themselves abused as children. This by no means lessens his responsibility for his actions. It does, however, underscore what we already know about the role of childhood sexual assault in the perpetuation of pedophilia. It also gives us one important reason why we must stop these assaults on children. We humans do what we learn. Sometimes what we’re taught overpowers the potential for goodness in our neuropsychology. Then we have to painstakingly unlearn problematic behaviors. But in this case, the recidivism rate for offenders is disturbingly high. Pedophilia is not curable. It’s a chronic condition that needs constant attention. It’s wiser to watch offenders closely than to encourage repentance and seek a rapid cure. For a brief treatise on pedophiles read:


Meanwhile, at the helm at Penn State, University President Graham Spanier, Senior Vice President Gary Schultz, Athletic Director Tim Curley and Coach Joe Paterno were Sandusky’s enablers. The Freeh report released last week about the scandal made that patently clear. The most shocking finding was that Coach Paterno was more culpable than he admitted when he testified under oath before the grand jury. The report claimed Paterno actively interfered with the recommendation of Curley and Schultz to inform the authorities that Sandusky had been observed by an assistant coach assaulting a boy in a Penn State shower room. This revelation recently led to internal actions by the university to discredit Coach Paterno by permanently removing his statue from public display. Remember, he had already been taken out of his position before he passed away. For a more complete analysis of the Freeh Report check out Eric Prisbell’s piece in USA Today:


This new information begs two serious questions: What further actions should be taken at Penn State and by the NCAA to prevent similar tragedies in the future? Again, a lot has already been reported in this regard, but I would like to share some thoughts about Penn State itself and the NCAA penalties that the university has now suffered as a result of the scandal.

First the penalties. This week I listened to a report on Michel Martin’s NPR program Tell Me More about the Penn State sanctions. I won’t list all the sanctions here, but they were harsh and designed to send a message to all NCAA member institutions. Michel’s guest was Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre. He was asked by Michel whether the NCAA has the authority to force the sanctions that they placed on the university. Critics are arguing that they do not. Torre considered that argument valid but nevertheless supported the NCAA’s decisions, because Sandusky used the football program as a platform for his crimes, and because university administrators abetted his actions. In Torre’s words, “The NCAA needs to say something about this. And if they’re going to say something, what they did today, this morning, is honestly a very good set of punishments under that rubric.” Read the full interview at:


Whether the NCAA has the authority or not, the reasoning behind their decisions was correctly driven by the organization’s responsibility to speak and act forcefully about crimes that are committed under the aegis of a university’s sports program. Because of the dire consequences of sexual assaults, and the knowledge that Sandusky abused multiple boys with the help of his bosses, critics are wrong to challenge the NCAA for overstepping its authority and risk siding with the likes of a pedophile and his see no evil coach — in effect, making them a cause célèbre. The business of Penn State should now be to accept the consequences, heal its wounds and rebuild faith in the system. Yes, Paterno was a football genius, but he’ll be remembered as a criminal who escaped life before he would likely have faced charges. That’s what happens to men with fatal flaws, no matter how stellar their other accomplishments. Critics of the NCAA decision should let it go. They are misguided. I am adding my voice to Mr. Torre’s and commending the NCAA for their actions.

How could this happen at Penn State (or at any other institution for that matter)?

Twenty-five years ago, when I was an academic dean and director of the elementary and secondary schools at Gallaudet University, and years before I understood how I had been sexually victimized by my father, I received reports that one of our staff members was acting “inappropriately” with high school students. The individuals making the reports did not talk directly with me, because they viewed this individual as “powerful” and with connections that could jeopardize their futures at the university.  No “hard” evidence was reported, no sightings, no first hand information, just suspicions and innuendos. I had my own suspicions about the person.

Without information on which we could act, but concerned for our students and all staff members, our management team developed and introduced a policy not common in those days regarding “inappropriate fraternization” with students. Of course, there was legislation in place regarding child sexual assault and the reporting of suspected abuse to the authorities, but the allegations from staff did not rise to a level that triggered an investigation when reported. We nevertheless wanted to send a message that such behaviors would not be tolerated. By promulgating a specific school policy concerning this issue, we made explicit what should have been implicitly understood by all school personnel. I surmised that the staff member under suspicion knew that he was being targeted at the time, and that was okay.

When I think about Penn State in light of my own sexual victimization, and my experience in reporting abuse as both a school administrator and a licensed professional counselor, two ideas seem important in helping the university move forward.

First, consider the role that the Paterno football legacy played, not only in shaping, but at times directing the decisions of Penn State. When Coach Paterno persuaded Curley and Schultz not to report the assault, and the Freeh Report says the president concurred, Joe was the one in charge. He was in control (or out of control, depending on how you frame it). President Spanier even responded in an email that “having a talk” with Sandusky instead seemed like the “humane” thing to do, a talk that never actually happened. Really? Sandusky’s offense wasn’t insubordination or overspending his accounts. He didn’t need a scolding. What he did was a crime, a brutal, violent attack on a young boy’s body. It’s no surprise that Spanier is now covering his tracks by ripping the Freeh report as error-ridden. Read it in the NY Daily News:


In any case, we now know that Joe was the “decider in chief” in that instance. How many more instances were there like that?

So, first and foremost, university leaders abrogated their responsibility. Not reporting child abuse has resulted in removal from their jobs and criminal prosecution. Termination for not reporting abuse is common in school environments. In moving forward, Penn State will do well to hire and retain leaders who understand and follow the law but go above and beyond when it comes to the protection of innocents in any way connected to university programs and personnel. There are glimmers of hope that the message has been heeded by Board Chairwoman Karen Peetz, new President Rod Erickson and Acting Athletic Director David Joyner. When you are in charge you find a way to do the right thing, whether or not it’s required by law.

Paterno was allowed to amass too much power, given too much latitude. This is an imbalance recognizable at many sports-minded institutions of higher learning. But in this case, failure to override the protections Paterno afforded to Sandusky, not once, but many times over, allowed the continued abuse of boys. If any one of Paterno’s superior’s had stood up for what was right, it would not have come to this. That’s on them and it’s now up to the courts to decide punishments, just like with Sandusky. Paterno may be getting his consequence on the other side.

These administrative cover-ups are eerily similar to a Salon report yesterday on the sentencing of Monsignor William Lynn, the Catholic cleric who received three to six years for knowingly reassigning a pedophile priest to parish work, thus facilitating the abuse of yet another boy. In a scathing condemnation, Judge M. Teresa Sarmina declared that Lynn aided “monsters in clerical garb . . . to destroy the souls of children, to whom you had turned a hard heart.” In her equally scathing commentary, Mary Elizabeth Williams, the Salon author, was just as harsh in her tone. “There is a direct line flowing from Lynn’s choices to the molestation of a little boy. A minimum of three years in jail? I’d say that’s good for a start.” Can we not agree that William Lynn and Joe Paterno each took specific actions to allow abuse to continue? It’s hard for me to feel any compassion regarding their punishments. When harmful acts are this deliberate, it’s distasteful to consider mitigating circumstances. The full Salon report can be read at:


Secondly, I can imagine a day in the past when Penn State cheerleaders were chanting “We are Penn State! We are the Nittany Lions!” from the sidelines. Shouting that you are the school, or the family, or the tribe at your opponents is as old as human groups. It’s designed to rev up the troops for battle. You stifle your individual identity and selflessly support the common interests; in this case making money and winning a national title. Everyone – students, administrators, alumni, staff and faculty do whatever it takes for the cause. With victory the single focus, undue harm to others is sometimes the collateral damage. There is nothing more important to a soldier when on a mission than solidarity with his brothers and sisters, but how many times have soldiers committed atrocities in the name of country? Think of the Vietnam War’s Mi Lai Massacre and Iraq’s Abu Ghraib. After the fact you can understand where things went wrong in terms of human dynamics, but it’s not right. It should never have happened in the first place.

The comparison of Penn State’s lapses to war crimes is admittedly a stretch, but the dynamics are the same. Think of it as a matter of scale. A Nittany Lion “soldier” was out of control. His “lieutenant” and even the “general” did nothing to stop him. They didn’t confront him, ask him to stop, or give a warning. When his assaults came to light, they chose denial. Then they closed ranks and the cover-up began. Something allowed Paterno and his bosses to look the other way after a colleague sodomized a boy in a university shower room. Can anyone think of a more logical reason?

Penn State, after accepting the NCAA sanctions this week, is planning to right the wrongs at the university. Task forces are being established to study areas where failures occurred, the board is promising more involvement in the operation of the school and the community will discuss shifting its culture form what it was to what it should be. This is commendable. Anger over the limitations placed on its sports programs may be difficult to temper, given the historical fervor over football and Joe Paterno that got the school in this fix in the first place. Then again, perhaps the Nittany Lion will emerge from the changes healthier than ever before, and collateral damage will become just an artifact of a bygone era.

But we must think about the boys who are now young men and struggling. What will Penn State do for them? How will the institution help repair their lives? Offering compensation is laudable but not the complete answer. Be creative Penn State. Use your knowledge, skills, research and some of your money to develop curricula, programs, trainings, centers or degrees designed to prevent all forms of sexual assault. Do it for the boys, Penn State. The solution will not be complete until the university has satisfied this request to everyone’s satisfaction.



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AMHCA Presentation a Success

The presentation was well-attended and well received. After the session concluded, several individuals said they wanted EMI training — now! I’ve done this presentation many times before so the mechanics of it were familiar, but using a volunteer from the audience is always very interesting. I announced at the beginning of the session that I would be seeking a volunteer to work on a real problem. Remember that the entire demonstration was going to be videotaped.

When it was time for the demonstration, I had two women raise their hands. One had a troubled look on her face. My interpretation of her facial expressions and body language (BMIRS’s) told me she was anxious about taking this step. From the stage I asked what it was that she wanted to work on. Her response was one word –“resentment.” She offered no more of an explanation. I asked if this would be difficult for her to talk about. She said yes.

I turned to the audience and commented that with EMI it is possible to address acute anxiety or PTSD without requiring the person to tell the story of what happened — no details, no scenario. I heard gasps from the group and thought I detected some mumbled skepticism. No other technique for resolving acute stress or PTSD will make that claim. So I asked the volunteer if she would be willing to work on her resentment if she didn’t have to tell the story of what caused it. She agreed.

Wendy (her name) agreed to volunteer and be videotaped as a part of the demonstration, knowing that the results would later be “streamed” on the Phoenix website and to promote the training and use of EMI with mental health clients. All I knew about Wendy is that she drove to the AMHCA meeting from Arkansas with a friend and she concurred that she had never met me before.

I had already described the steps in conducting an EMI session and given many examples of how it worked. I had also shared results from a Pilot Study done at Phoenix Counseling that showed impressive improvement in the average scores of the five clients with PTSD who underwent two to four EMI sessions. Each took the PTSD Checklist – Civilian Version before and after treatment. This self-report checklist was developed at the Veteran Administration’s Center for PTSD and is widely used.

Back to the demonstration . . . I did a pretest of Wendy”s thoughts about the resentment (“It’s a ‘flight’ sensation, like I need to be ready to get away.”) and associated sensations (Tightness around her neck, and some sound she did not explain). We agreed that we would rate those symptoms with a score of 100%. If the symptoms got better, the score would go down to 90, 80 or,70%. After one “round” of EMI eye movements, I asked Wendy to focus on the resentment again (remember that she never disclosed what had caused it), and to tell us if it was the same or different. She looked for a minute and then said, “It’s different.” When I asked her how it was different, she said it did not have as much of an effect on her. I asked if she had had this resentment for a long time and she answered,”Yes, 30 years.” When I asked if the changes in her reactions were better or worse after the first round, she said, “better.” When I asked what score she would give them now, she said, “45%. I commented that 45% was a big change, less than half of what it was before we began.

After round two, the score went down to 35%. She said both the image and how she felt about it inside (one visual change, one emotional) were “softer.” I asked Wendy if it was one person who had caused the resentment. She said, “yes.” When I asked if she still had to interact with this individual, she answered, “yes” again. I asked what would have to happen for her to see the score go even lower? She jokingly said, “Be completely unaffected by it.” Then she said she would have to be less fearful. We did one more round of EMI and I asked her to focus this time on the fear itself instead of the whole event. When we were done Wendy’s score dropped to 15%. When I asked how the fearfulness was she said, “lessened.”

The results were typical of how EMI works with clients and a good example of how people don’t have to tell their stories of trauma to heal, contrary to what other PTSD interventions require. When we finished, I asked Wendy to take a deep breath and to appreciate the important work she had just done in front of large group of people — important healing work. Then I asked Wendy if she gave “high fives,” to which she said yes, so we clapped hands.

What followed was 15 minutes of questions, many for Wendy about what her experience was while we did the session. I’m hoping that many left believers in this simple but effective technique for healing acute stress and PTSD.

(Look for the pilot study results and portions of the demonstration to be carried on my website www.deninger.com under “More About EMI” in the near future.


I called Wendy to check and see how she was doing three weeks after our work together. She had agreed to sign a release so Phoenix could use the video for training purposes. She reported that she “was still feeling relief” from our work together at the convention; the changes we had achieved stayed in place.




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EMI(tm) Presentation at American Mental Health Counseling Association

Tomorrow I will give an important  presentation at the AMHCA annual conference here in Orlando, Florida. I’ve been an AMHCA member ever since I earned my graduate degree in counseling from Gallaudet University in 1997. AMHCA is the professional organization representing more than 6,000 licensed professional counselors and clinical mental health therapists from all parts of the country who work in various capacities in the national mental health effort. This presentation is important for a few reasons.

First, it is my own professional organization. I will be speaking to my peers, my compatriots. Second, it has taken me a long time to get to the point where I have convinced organizations like AMHCA that it’s important to look at EMI(tm) as a viable therapy for treating acute and post traumatic stress, as well as phobias and negative or self-limiting thoughts. Third, the presentation will be videotaped and I hope to retrieve enough good footage to be able to stream parts of the presentation and how the technique works when I do a live demonstration with a volunteer. or those of you who would like to know more about EMI you will find a description of the therapy and even a detailed case study of my work with a client at www.deninger.com under “More About EMI.”

I did a demo of EMI in 2010 at the Anxiety Disorders Association of America Annual Conference. I worked with an elderly psychiatrist who was rear-ended in a serious car accident from three years before. My assessment told me that he suffered from PTSD from that single event. He volunteered to work with me and we did an EMI session focusing on the accident. His PTSD symptoms were reduced to a point where he was no longer having the reaction he had had for three years to the trauma. I phoned him six months later to find that he did not think about the accident much anymore and, when he did, he was not as bothered by his thoughts or reactions.

While at the conference I also talked to a woman who was leading PTSD research efforts at a large northeast university system. I asked if I could share my work with EMI with her or one of her colleagues. Her response was, “Do you know how many people tell me everyday that they have a cure for PTSD?” When I persisted and pointed out that her response was not what a practitioner who deals with PTSD all the time would want to hear, she relented and told me to use the PTSD checklist developed by the Veterans Administration and to film a video of the technique; then maybe she would take a look at it. Well, begrudgingly, I did just that.

Today I have that woman’s rebuke to thank for promting me to do a pilot study of the use of EMI with five of my PTSD clients. I will be reporting the results at my presentation tomorrow here in Orlando. We will also be videotaping both the presentation and the EMI demonstration so there will be a record of the work to show to any researcher who might be willing to view the therapy in action!

Wish me luck . . .

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Penn State Freeh Report Out

Associated Press is reporting that the investigation headed by former US FBI Director William Freeh is out today. No surprises. The report’s chief finding is that the Penn State administration, including former coach Joe Paterno, by not passing on information about observed abuse to the authorities, caused endangerment to children. Watch for much more as the Freeh report is analyzed and interpreted over the next several days. Will there be additional indictments? Will former university president Spanier face legal actions for neglecting to take action as well?

The parallels between Penn State administrator inaction and the clergy abuse scandals of the Catholic Church are clear, pointing to how people in positions of authority sometimes shield perpetrators from exposure and prosecution — unconscionable but real.

But the larger lesson in all of this is how critical it is to take seriously every child’s report of discomfort around adults who have them in their care or under their supervision. Lives are thrown devastatingly off track as a result of abuse and other forms of trauma. Now is the time for a serious national dialogue about child sexual endangerment. I recommend a presidential commission on the topic to research and report the prevalence of child sexual exploitation in the U.S. and make recommendations regarding legislation and programs needed to overcome this national tragedy. One in six boys and one in four girls are sexually abused before the age of eighteen. This is unacceptable from any vantage point point.

It’s time to plan and execute a national strategy to heal our nation — not only from sexual abuse but from all forms of trauma

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