Thursday, January 16, 2020

Too Gay

Implicit bias” refers to the unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that affect our decisions, actions, and understanding without our conscious awareness or control. Project Implicit was founded in 1988 by scientists from the University of Washington, Harvard University, and the University of Virginia. The goal of the organization is to educate the public about hidden biases, and to provide a “virtual laboratory” for collecting data about implicit bias.

Project Implicit’s simple online tests use your individual reaction times to measure how easily your subconscious connects particular attributes with either positive or negative terms. Their website has collected data from hundreds of thousands of people regarding traits from skin color to weight. Go ahead, try a couple of implicit bias tests for yourself. It's worth ten minutes of your time.

Years ago I took the tests for sex, race, and sexual orientation. This week for the first time I took the test measuring implicit bias regarding disabled and abled people. 

Like 14% of participants, my responses “suggested a slight automatic preference for Abled Persons over Disabled Persons.”

Our implicit biases can reveal themselves in other situations, from stroke-damaged brains to tense sporting events and enraged video gaming. Until recently, my favorite examples of personally outing implicit bias all happened during my appearances on Chicagoland talk radio shows. 

When I worked at the American Civil Liberties Union during the 90s, hot-button issues included Illinois’ so-called “Defense of Marriage” bill, as well as our lawsuit challenging government sponsorship of scouting programs because they excluded atheists and “avowed homosexuals.” Occasionally conservative radio hosts would invite me on their shows to discuss my cases. My presence acted as a primitive form of “click-bait” for some of their most rabid listeners. I found that by calmly presenting a few simple legal analogies I could provoke callers into spewing openly racist and sexist sentiments.

I’ve already written thousands of words on this blog about my family’s experiences since I moved to Bellingham to take a job with the State at Western Washington University. As an English Major, I usually see the story as a “dramedy.” The A Plot is about how poorly prepared we all are to deal with mental illness, both individually and as a society. Nevertheless, there’s also a B Plot about the mostly comic challenges facing a gay dad. 

On good days, I’m "Gay Sitcom Dad" instead, and my disability becomes the tragicomic B Plot. On bad days, I can’t help noticing how implicit and explicit homophobia amplify the effects of disability discrimination.  

For example: 

One day at work when Id been in my new job with the Washington Attorney General’s Office for a couple of months, we were heading to a meeting with Bruce Shepard, then the President of Western Washington University. I was waiting outside President Shepard’s office with my supervisor and three academic employees. I’d already worked closely with all four women. One of the client representatives took this opportunity to ask me about my family. I told her I had a 7-year-old son and two 10-year-old daughters. 

As invariably happens, someone asked if the girls are twins. As usual I said no, they were born two weeks apart and adopted separately, one at birth and the other from the foster system three and a half years later. The girls are very different, and I described one as “ten going on six and still playing with dolls,” and the other as “ten going on sixteen,” then made a comment about wishing I could delay puberty. I’m sure I am not the first father, gay or straight, single or married, who has told someone at the office that part of him wishes his daughter could stay a little girl just a little bit longer.

Afterwards my supervisor took me aside and told me my oversharing was unprofessional. Months later, when my employers were looking for ways to get rid of me, they sent a belligerent letter to my PTSD therapist asking for her opinion on whether this puberty episode demonstrated my judgment was too impaired to practice law. When the State illegally fired me at Western Washington University’s behest, this incident outside President Shepard’s office was one of their stated pretexts. 

Here are some other examples of both innocuous and noxious experiences I had while I was working at Western Washington University for Attorney General Bob Ferguson:

1.     Annual conference for all of the State’s education attorneys. During discussion of campus anti-fraternization and sexual harassment policies, a veteran Assistant Attorney General quoted a faculty member at his college as saying “If we can’t have sex with our students, who will we sleep with?” No one complained about this anecdote or criticized the speaker.

2.     Washington Attorney General’s Office annual all-attorney conference. The conference theme was diversity. Two keynote speeches were by a black attorney who made jokes about stereotypes, and by the new President of the University of Washington. Then-Chief Deputy Attorney General Dave Horn introduced UW President Anna Cauce. I was discouraged when he described her background as a celebrated woman, Latina, and immigrant – but not as an out lesbian. I wondered how many of the 550 attorneys present realized Dave Horn himself is openly gay.

3.     Opening my mail while standing in the doorway next to my supervisor’s office. In Fall 2015, like many other folks affiliated with Western, I received an invitation to President Shepard’s annual holiday reception that included typical “Plus 1” language. As we stood there casually chatting about the Shepards’ annual social tradition, I asked the other attorney in the office if I should take a college freshman to the party as my date. In light of our prior communication problems, I thought that joking about the party invitation would give me an opportunity to demonstrate that I can distinguish between “can” and “should.” (Even if, like Stephen Sondheim or Christopher Isherwood, I someday fall in love with someone thirty years younger than myself, I can’t imagine a situation where I would take this new beau to my first major social event at a new job.) She was not amused. At the end of our short discussion, my supervisor asked me in an exasperated tone why I blurt out things like this. Based on our prior discussions, I understood her to be referring to her concern that I over-rely on humor in awkward social situations. I explained that such impulsiveness is a typical symptom of stress and anxiety.

4.     Holiday lunch for the folks who work in Western Washington University’s law and compliance office suite. We walked down the hill together to a waterfront restaurant located in a local hotel and spa. As my supervisor and the rest of us walked through the lobby, a straight colleague joked that we should all get massages instead. As far as I know, no one suggested he should be subject to discipline for this comment.

5.     Washington Attorney General’s Office finally approved a process for creating employee affinity groups. I contacted the lesbian Assistant Attorney General who was organizing the LGBT group. I described my community advocacy background, and signed up for the affinity group. She asked me to review a draft of the group’s proposed charter. I objected to offensive wording that suggested LGBT people are more likely than others to act unprofessionally. She agreed the office's draft language was improper.

Let’s zero in on the party invitation incident described in Item No. 3, which occurred a few weeks before my doctor diagnosed me with PTSD in November 2015. In hindsight, I recognize my disability was already exacerbating my awkward behavior in stressful social situations. In any event, I did not mean to offend my supervisor, Bellingham Education “Team Leader” Kerena Higgins. I certainly did not believe my rhetorical question warranted harsh employment sanctions – particularly in light of comparable non-gay workplace comments like the above examples. At the time, my employers didn’t suggest they believed so either. 

So I didn’t think any further about our brief private conversation regarding the party invitation. Until my long-delayed performance evaluation on January 7, 2016, when Deputy Attorney General Christina Beusch and Division Chief Michael Shinn included this incident in their shocking and hyperbolic list of accusations about my conduct. They revealed for the first time that the State had included the party invitation episode among its bases for denying me the $3,000 raise given to every other attorney in the office – on the previously undisclosed ground that Ms. Higgins complained about being offended because she has a high-school-aged son.

If Ms. Higgins had said something about her teenaged son during our conversation months before, I would have apologized for unintentionally offending her. I would have expressed empathy as a fellow parent. But I would also have used the opportunity to gently educate her about how singularly horrifying the “pedophilia libel” is to gay people, especially to someone who has spent three decades as an outspoken advocate both for the LGBT community and on children’s issues. 

I’ve been doing this kind of legal work for long enough to recognize clear evidence of sexual orientation discrimination. In particular, I can hear the homophobic dog whistle linking every single gay man to accusations of pedophilia. If there are other employment lawyers out there who think I’m mistaken, feel free to leave a public comment or to email me privately.

As directed by my employer’s written anti-discrimination policy, I drafted a complaint regarding the State's handling of the party invitation incident. I also identified numerous corroborating examples of workplace homophobia I had observed and experienced since my arrival in Bellingham, including some of the above examples.

I did not want to file a formal complaint without first giving my novice supervisor an opportunity to respond to my concerns. Before meeting privately in my office, I gave her a draft describing the substance of my sexual orientation discrimination complaint. 

When we met, I was surprised by Ms. Higgins’ insistence that she had done nothing wrong in connection with our discussion about the holiday party invitation six month earlier. She did not appear to understand me when I explained how much harm the "pedophilia libel" has caused to gay men. She said I was the one who owed her an apology. (I of course apologized for unintentionally offending her.) And she told me I was the one who needed to do a better job of having empathy and putting myself in other people's shoes. 

The next day I submitted my formal complaint that the State had discriminated against me on the basis of sexual orientation in violation of the Washington Law Against Discrimination. As I've discussed at length elsewhere, attorneys for the State made a bad situation even worse. They retaliated against my discrimination complaint by using it as a pretext for illegally firing me based on separate supervisor criticisms regarding my workplace conduct – even as they stonewalled my employment attorney's repeated attempts to seek a reasonable accommodation of my disability. Meanwhile, their investigator was so busy executing his secret assignment (i.e., vilify Roger while white-washing the State) that he never got around to the job he was actually hired to do, which was to investigate my well-documented complaint of sexual orientation discrimination. This is what homophobia looks like in action.

But wait – here’s one more example.

Early in my employment with the State, too many high-ranking folks at Western and at the Attorney General’s Office concluded I was a “bad fit.” Unfortunately for my supervisors, they had a Human Resources problem – everyone also acknowledged I was providing exceptional legal services. To justify my termination, the State had to rely on dubious examples regarding my workplace conduct. Like this gem, which I recently shared with the Board of Trustees of Western Washington University at their December 2019 public meeting:  

When the lawyers at the Attorney General’s Office destroyed my life, they did it to accommodate then-Western President Bruce Shepard’s malice and prejudice. I look forward to sharing the detailed evidence I’ve gathered regarding President Shepard’s role. For now, I’ll point to one specific example, because it happened here in this room. 

I sang with Seattle Men’s Chorus for fifteen years. The Trustees were aware of my participation in the chorus; several of you had attended our concerts. SMC is one of the nation's oldest gay choruses, and one of Washington’s most successful arts organizations. During a public meeting of the Board in 2015, I compared the Trustees’ momentous task of choosing a new university president to the Seattle Men’s Chorus search to replace its conductor for the first time in thirty-five years. 

Documents produced under the Public Records Act revealed that the Washington Attorney General’s Office took adverse employment action against me because President Shepard told them he was offended by my LGBT arts analogy. 

Let that sink in. Bruce Shepard had me fired, in part, because he thought the real-world analogy I shared with you Trustees was too gay. 

As I saw with my talk radio opponents in Chicagoland during the 1990s, scraping the bottom of the logical barrel often reveals underlying prejudice.

During my time at Western Washington University working for Attorney General Bob Ferguson, I was shocked by the “closety” workplace culture, despite the presence of numerous LGBT employees. This attitude reflects deeply rooted societal bias, and too often results in illegal discrimination. Employers generally cannot intrude into employees’ personal lives, and many of my former colleagues are fiercely protective of their own privacy. For example, unlike me, my supervisor did not have numerous large portraits of her children hanging in her office at Western. But inclusion means LGBT state employees, just like employees with nonobvious disabilities, are entitled to reveal our identities and refer to our families during conversations with colleagues and with the public if we choose.

In contrast with visible traits like race and gender, a gay dad has to come out every day. The quintessential “heterosexual privilege” is that a straight lawyer is free to casually refer to meeting his wife and kids after work without raising eyebrows, but if I mention going on a date with a man or describe my family or my chorus, I risk being accused of “flaunting my sexuality” and “bringing up personal stuff.” 

As we saw with the military, “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” is an unworkable and immoral disaster. Nothing does more harm to the dignity and mental health of LGBT people than living in a society that explicitly and implicitly demands we stay in the closet.

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