Angela McCaskill
Op-ed: Dealing With Gallaudet's Diversity Problem

By Mike Deninger Ph.D.

Originally published on Advocate.com January 16 2013 6:15 AM ET

The controversy surrounding Angela McCaskill, Gallaudet University's chief diversity officer, has been smoldering since September. McCaskill was placed on administrative leave from the Washington, D.C., school for the deaf and hard of hearing for signing an anti-marriage equality petition at her church in the state of Maryland. Although the situation initially received considerable media attention, much of it was focused narrowly on McCaskill as a victim.

As the argument against her went, her role at the university required that she foster positive diversity outcomes among student 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.  

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. The petition McCaskill signed was successful and forced a referendum in November that could have repealed marriage rights in Maryland (the ballot measure was defeated on Election Day, and marriage equality is now state law).

On January 7, after four months of silence, with faculty and students still on winter break, Gallaudet president T. Alan Hurwitz announced that McCaskill had returned to her duties. He thanked the campus community for their “overall maturity” and for their “willingness to consider the differing views others may hold.” He also wrote that diversity work at the university was vital and he personally looked forward to working with McCaskill. The communication does not address what triggered the brouhaha.

When conflicts like this flare up between marginalized groups, it can be messy. Seen more positively, conflict can also become valuable “grist” for the diversity mill. Important lessons can be learned. There were many victims in this unfortunate series of events. The matter is larger than race, religion, or homophobia, and it reveals 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 employees recover now that McCaskill has returned to her position? She was reportedly well-liked and respected on campus prior to this incident. Unfortunately, LGBT rights advocates 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. 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 reengage campus groups and recover from the messiness.

I’m no stranger to deafness or diversity work. I am a white, gay, hearing male, fluent in American Sign Language, who worked for 25 years at Gallaudet; as an academic administrator for 13 years. During my tenure as a dean, our division developed the first diversity training programs of any significance at the university more than 25 years ago. When I think about the suspicion, distrust, and vitriol caused by these latest events, 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 a bias, to overcome prejudice and stop discrimination. 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 this issue. I know all the players. I believe each of them deserves respect. Each side has been accused of intolerance. It must have been hard for President Hurwitz to decide what to do when faced with a complaint that the actions of his diversity officer appeared intolerant. 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 antimarriage 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. Often our first instinct is to secure our borders and hunker down for a siege. But we can also choose to heal by engaging in an open and sincere dialogue.

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 in a poignant set of events:

My story transpired in rural Virginia. I needed a haircut. I’m particular about who cuts my hair, so I googled “barber shops” in the area and came up with a list of three choices. 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.   

(Pictured: Writer Mike Deninger, Ph.D.)

When I pulled up to the small shop on a gravel side street, there was no “barber pole” twirling outside. I hoped this wasn’t going to be one of those unisex places.

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. His shirt was open at the collar and beads of perspiration were dripping from his brow into his eyes. A twinge of tension fluttered across my lower abdomen.

The whitewashed room was 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. I realized the business catered to African-American women. Decision time: I could retreat back out the door and hope the proprietor would not be offended. But I had a thought that there was something in that place for me. Besides, I needed a haircut. I walked around the divider to three weathered lime-green salon chairs against the back wall. The counter behind them had a sparse array of hair products, probably created for women of color.

It dawned on me that I hadn’t yet seen the barber.

I was startled when a demure, middle-aged, African-American woman rose slowly from a folding chair in a corner with an open Bible in her left hand. She was dressed simply and with a wig much less flattering than the ones for sale.

“Would you like a haircut?” she asked.

“Why, yes I would,” I responded, telling myself that everything would be fine — maybe. She pulled her Bible’s fabric bookmark into place, then closed it and placed the text in a cubby beneath the wigs.

“How about right here?” she asked, motioning to the center chair. She moved to the front of the shop and turned up the volume on the preacher. His deep, raspy voice was as gruff as I had imagined. Ministers who channel an angry God make me uncomfortable. I vowed to engage my barber in conversation to avoid the distraction.

“How would you like your hair cut?” she asked.

“Number 1 on the sides and 4 on top,” I said, deciding to keep it simple. While the clippers whirred behind my left ear, I asked her how long she had worked there.

“I opened this place six months ago,” she said.

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

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

“I’m a licensed professional counselor.”

“I’ll bet that’s rewarding,” she said. “Do you work with any particular groups?” I couldn’t say gays and lesbians. That was TMI for my first haircut and for the situation. I heard the preacher growling about sinners who “do whatever they want, whenever they want, no matter what the scripture teaches.”

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

“You have children? You married?” she asked. These are routine questions in casual conversation, and although our chat had been very casual, there was nothing routine about the circumstances. The tension in my stomach quivered again.

The preacher was shouting, “You can run, my friends, but you CAN-NOT hide! Lay DOWN your will and your life! BEG his forgiveness!” By that time I was in full-freak. I had to answer 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 for her response.

“I see ... ” That was it. Nothing more. Silence lingered like smoke trapped in a test tube. “Can I ask you a question?” she asked. I could tell she was opening a door.

“Sure,” I said, expecting a conversion attempt.

“I have a daughter who’s 20. 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 that you’re a woman of faith, so I can imagine how difficult this is for you. 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 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.” 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 what it was like for me — all the truth I could impart over 15 minutes’ time. She kept repeating: “I’m just trying to love her the best way I can.” It was her mantra. At one point she said she hoped it was a phase her daughter would get over. I discouraged that thinking, telling her, “It’s the way we’re wired.” 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 haircut. The knowing, soft smile on her face warmed my insides.  As I prepared to leave, I asked her name.

“Jackie,*” she said.

“Jackie,” I said, “Do you think it’s possible someone had a hand in bringing us together?”

“Perhaps,” she said. “Could well be.”

“It’s been a pleasure talking with you.”

“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. I turned back, took out a business card and placed it in her hand. “Sounds like you’re doing a fine job with your daughter, but if you or she ever wants to talk, feel free to call.”

Her real name and location have been withheld to protect her, since coming out of the closet can still be dangerous. She told me she didn’t feel comfortable telling her “church family,” because she was going to love her daughter 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.

The rights of marginalized groups are under siege these days. 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 obstruct fellow travelers in our quest for freedoms — even in 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.” 

 

MIKE DENINGER, Ph.D., is a counselor and author. Find more of his work at Deninger.com

*Jackie's real name and location have been withheld to protect her.