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Tripping Over a Leg Up


Last May, Aiden Quinn was texting his girlfriend while operating a moving vehicle--a dangerous activity under any circumstances, but especially reckless considering that Quinn wasn't driving a mere automobile. As a trolley driver for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which operates Boston's subway and bus systems nicknamed the "T," Quinn was at the helm of a train carrying dozens of people underground. Buried in his digital billets-doux, he wasn't alert when the train sailed through a red light and rammed into the back of another trolley. Luckily, no one was killed, though nearly 50 people were injured, and the resulting lawsuits could cost the T millions.

Media attention slowly drew away from the details of the accident to something far more sensational: Quinn is female-to-male transgender. This immediately provided fodder for all manner of disparaging comments, and given the way in which transgenderism--something of which most Americans are utterly ignorant and view as peculiar--was suddenly thrust into the mainstream media spotlight, it was understandable that transgender organizations would go on the defensive. "Anything related to his gender identity would be irrelevant and further perpetuate unnecessary sensationalism," read a statement from the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition. "Media outlets should be reporting on the facts of the case and not using sensationalistic coverage of a person's identity or former name when neither has a bearing on the case."

Quinn's trans identity had nothing to do with the collision; being transgender (or gay or female or black or left-handed) does not make one more likely to text while driving. But that doesn't mean that his gender identity was utterly "irrelevant." Indeed, Quinn's transgenderism became fair game when the allegation arose that he had benefited from it to get his job in the first place. "[Quinn] was initially hired as a minority and used her [sic] transgender status,'" an MBTA source told ABC News. The MBTA rebutted that charge, saying that Quinn was hired through a job lottery, although the T does advertise itself as an "affirmative action employer."

Consider the following: Quinn had received three speeding tickets and was involved in a motor vehicle accident during the seven years prior to the accident. Amazingly, these violations do not disqualify one from working for the T, which may say more about lax government hiring standards and the power of public employee unions in Massachusetts than it does about political correctness. But is it not fair to at least raise the question of whether Quinn would have been treated differently were he not transgender?

Regardless of the specifics surrounding this particular incident, the prospect of preferential hiring on the basis of homosexuality and transgender identity poses troubling questions. At this point it's a largely hypothetical issue. In most states employers can fire or refuse to hire LGBTs solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. So the idea of asking for special preferences is more than akin to the metaphor of beggars acting like choosers. But in the country's more "progressive" institutions, the notion of gay affirmative action is not so theoretical. At the 2006 annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the subject of affirmative action for gay students came up and found some adherents, including an admissions officer at Vermont's prestigious Middlebury College. The school's assistant director of admissions told the website Inside Higher Ed that gay students bring "a unique quality," which is important as the school tries hard not "to be too homogeneous." Don't be surprised if, within the next few years, the nation's top colleges add homosexuality to their list of applicant "attributes," giving gay students the same leg up that athletes, children of alumni, and some racial minorities also enjoy.

Proponents of minority preferences argue that racial or sexual identity has nothing to do with job performance. This was the argument transgender activists made in the wake of the MBTA disaster, when so many opportunistic reactionaries drew attention to Quinn's gender identity. They're absolutely right, which is why factors like race, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity should have no place in hiring decisions. If gays are asking the government and private institutions to view homosexuality as legally neutral--meaning that one's sexual orientation makes one neither intrinsically good nor bad, neither more nor less qualified--then we cannot simultaneously expect our sexuality to be treated as a bonus quality.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the early gay rights movement was to have homosexuality removed from the list of mental disorders in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Giving gays a preference would stigmatize homosexuality by treating all of us, regardless of our economic status or upbringing, as inherently disadvantaged.

A look at the history of the African-American civil rights movement is instructive. It began as a struggle firmly rooted in the American ideals of personal liberty and equality before the law. It was the courageous actions of Freedom Riders, bus boycotters, and other activists who helped, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., to slowly bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice. With passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the dream of full legal equality for black people was finally realized.

Yet what started as a campaign to end government-sanctioned discrimination turned into a self-perpetuating industry of grievance, victimization, and the institutionalization of government handouts. The Great Society agenda of the 1960s, in which social programs were vastly expanded, created a devastating cycle of dependency. The welfare system grew into a massive bureaucracy that, rather than incentivize work, encouraged the poor to remain indolent and unwed mothers to have more children. Whole generations of families lived their lives in blighted public housing projects, while crumbling public schools, despite massive infusions of money, continue to be dead ends for most students. These programs came with the noble intention of helping the poor but had the actual effect of keeping them down.

Throughout history, when faced with discrimination, gays made progress through private initiative. The power of the "pink dollar" is recognized by corporate America, and gays have risen to the highest levels of industry, politics, media--all without government protection. Affirmative action programs made sense in the early years after the Civil Rights Act. But today, it is against the law to fire someone because of race or sex. With the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill being held up not just because of conservative intransigence but also liberal spinelessness, firing someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity will similarly be prohibited. The mission of organizations representing all minorities should be to ensure that their members get a fair deal--not a preferential one.

Homosexuality isn't like race in that it is not apparent at birth and is not tied to specific ethnic communities or economies. So the argument that gays ought to benefit from affirmative action because of historic injustice simply doesn't fly. Not being able to get married hasn't prevented gay people from gaining admission to the best colleges or landing jobs at competitive employers. Unlike those who face economic hardship, for whom a real case can and should be made for affirmative action, gays and lesbians do not have an inherent societal disadvantage so extreme that it requires preferential treatment for them.

The other claim commonly used to defend racial preferences, that there is some overriding value of a "diverse" classroom or work environment, also does not hold. Treating homosexuality as a "plus factor" would put a priority on the mere declaration of one's homosexuality rather than on the attributes that distinguish one as an individual. For many of us, being gay or trans is just another fact of life, not something to be prized in the same way as one's true talents. Indeed, the whole point of today's gay rights movement and the attitude of most young people, gay and straight, is to promote the view that homosexuality is unremarkable. In applying for a job, why should the gender of the people to whom one is attracted matter as much as one's unique set of skills ? And how would we expect heterosexuals to feel when, through no fault of their own, they're penalized because of their sexual orientation?

But the worst aspect of minority preferences isn't the harm they do to those not deemed "disadvantaged," but to their intended recipients. Regardless of how qualified they are, racial minorities on elite college campuses and in high-powered jobs inevitably become subject to the suspicions of some small-minded white peers that their station in society is, at least in part, attributable to the color of their skin. But such (largely unspoken) prejudice is to be expected when an institution acknowledges its partiality to individuals bearing a certain inherent trait. This is the poison that racial preferences introduce into human relationships. And it's why gays, inevitably the next group to become the ostensible recipient of such progressive goodwill, should resist it especially.

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James Kirchick