First Person: An Open Letter to Dr. Angela McCaskill

An Open Letter to Dr. Angela McCaskill, Chief Diversity Officer at Gallaudet

Dr. McCaskill, Angela, as I am sitting down to finally carve the pumpkin I had hoped to donate to the Office of Diversity and you, I am moved to set down my thoughts to share with you.  I don’t yet know if I will send it to you, or if I will share it with the community. I only know I need to write these thoughts and still the dizzying whirl of feelings and reactions that have my mind abuzz.  We shall see when the pumpkin is carved and the lines here written what is worth the sharing.  

I need to be clear that I recognize that I do not have all the facts.  I know very little for certain, and because of that I have been slow to process my thoughts and understand all the competing arguments in my head or on the lips and hands of the Gallaudet community.   I will try to be clear about what I can address and what I cannot or have no business addressing, but I’m trying to settle a mind that has been abuzz and sleepless and stirring with troubled thoughts for days now so forgive me if I misstep.

I first want you to know that I love you and the energy you have brought to every encounter we have ever had. I have deep respect for you and honor all that you have accomplished, the force you have been for positive change and a discourse of civility here at Gallaudet.  I have known you to be kind, smart, funny, loving, respectful, and one of the best hug givers I’ve met.  I am grateful to you for the many little kindnesses and teachings you’ve imparted on my path. I am thankful for your support of LGBTQAA students, staff and faculty. I whole-heartedly believe that when you gave me your well-wishes on my wedding to my partner of 9 years and now husband of 5 years, you meant it.  I have a pretty good BS detector, and I think you are sincere.

With that said, I have to believe that you are living with some conflict in your heart.  I cannot know your heart, I can only make assumptions by inferring that if it is true that you wish me well and are happy for my marriage to Scott, and also that you did sign a petition that seeks to prevent LGBTQ people from civilly marrying, then you are walking around with a heavy and divided heart.

As I understand it you signed an initiative to bring an attempt to take away the right to marry from LGBT Marylanders to a referendum on the ballot.  A similar attempt was made here in Washington, DC after marriage equality was recognized by law. I feared I might lose the rights I had seen recognized at long last in the District. Rights like visitation in hospitals, status of ‘tenancy of the entirety’ in the purchase of a home, estate benefits etc. are long overdue and are tenuously held while LGBTQA wait for civil marriage equality.

Fortunately for me and other LGBT residents of DC that was prevented by an existing law that does not allow referendums for any law that would take away the rights of a group of people.  That law was written in a different time, in order to protect a different minority from a popular vote by a majority group trampling on their rights. That law was wise when it was written and is wise today.  In any age, there will always be the danger of a majority group ‘will’ trumping the human rights of a minority. To allow human rights to be decided in this way is to tread a path that has been trod before and resulted in horrors too many to name, though we should never forget.  If all questions of human rights are to be answered by what is popular among the local majority, then separate water fountains will be only the first and least of the problems we see in many of the towns I have lived in or visited.  We do not live in a post-racist world as some have said, and standards of human rights that are not always popular are an absolute requirement of a civil society.

Much has been said about your right to freedom of expression in the press and in the commentary floating around the web.  That freedom is one of most cherished in our society, and one I would staunchly defend at any turn.  You do have a right to express your political beliefs without fear of reprisal, and if you were a physics professor, or an administrator for any other department at Gallaudet  that would be the end of the story.  Nothing to see here folks, go home.  But you are not in any other position at Gallaudet, you are the head of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.  I have always believed you to be a champion of social justice, equity, and civility.  The position you hold does require that you be supportive of the civil rights of students, faculty and staff. This is not the same as personal approval of every facet of the lives of the groups you represent.

Many have said that signing such a petition has no bearing on your position at Gallaudet, but I must disagree.  Proof of this conflict is easily seen if we substitute LGBT Marriage Equality with a petition to allow a popular referendum in support of returning to miscegenation laws forbidding interracial marriage. Blacks and Whites who fell in love and wished to marry in this country faced legal prohibitions that often drew on the interpretations of biblical scripture by many racist majority group members.  Had you signed such a petition, arguments in defense of that political expressions lack of conflict with heading up the Office of Diversity would be few and far between.  The larger debate that has been raging in the media and blogosphere has shown me how trivialized the human rights of LGBTQA people are in our society.  If our right to equal protection under the law were seen as it should be, through the lens of civil rights, the discourse surrounding your signing of this petition would be very different indeed.

I feel I need to reiterate the notion that what we are talking about IS in fact a CIVIL right.  Marriage is one of the fundamental human rights, as recognized by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Article 16.

  • (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
  • (2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
  • (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Marriage Equality is not about infringement on religious freedoms at all, as it does nothing to require any religious institution to recognize the marriage as sanctioned by them or G-d.  In fact, your church or any other may call my marriage a ‘sin’ according to the tenets of their religion. I will happily join your congregation to protest any attempt to abridge your religious freedoms.  A pastor can call me any names they wish, or declare their belief in the sinful nature of my 10 year relationship with my husband, so long as they do not impede on my legal and civil rights in the doing.

The separation of Church and State is often bemoaned in conservative circles in this highly polarized time, but is at its root the greatest protection that religious institutions enjoy.  If we are to legislate based only on the religious strictures of the current majority, then all religious groups should quake in fear for the day when the “other” religion/sect becomes the majority power-holder and aligns the law to the strict interpretations of “their” code of observances.

It is important to me that you understand the root of my confusion and anger when I learned that you had given your name to this petition. You have a special role at Gallaudet, and a place in my heart. It seemed to me that you had violated that trust, by failing to be the champion of civil rights that I expected from the Chief Diversity Officer, and from my friend. I was hurt, and frustrated to find my ally and champion had clay feet. Many LGBTQA students, faculty and staff  and our allies have been discussing the same feelings over the past week. I for one am saddened to once again find that despite standing with my brothers and sisters against racism, sexism, misogyny, religious intolerance, audism, and other oppressions, I am tacitly told “it’s not your turn yet.”  The truth that we are supposed to have learned from the Civil Rights movements throughout time is that “If I’m not free, You are not free”.  Many lessons are still to be gleaned from the movements. It is tragic that while the names Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X are known to all, Bayard Rustin’s legacy is nearly non-existent in the public memory.  The way the Movement shunted him aside when he asserted that his gay and lesbian brothers and sisters should have their rights recognized, should be a stain of shame on those who reaped the benefits of his amazing work and told him to hush up and disappear.  That act was as misguided as Kwame Ture’s infamous take on the role of women in the civil rights movement “The role of women in the SNCC is prone”.

After a week of wishing I had all the facts, and wishing that I could talk to you face to face, I have had to simply examine the few facts and reason through the myriad arguments to understand what has happened and what I believe to be the right course. I cannot speak for anyone other than myself in this, but I believe every champion has clay feet. It is important to me to remember that we are all on a path, and just because your path is not the same as mine, that doesn’t mean you are ‘lost’.  Allies are always humans learning and growing, no different than the people they ally themselves with. I believe that signing that petition was wrong for a Chief Diversity Officer, but I also believe in you. I believe in your capacity to listen, learn, reason and grow.  I do not expect that to mean that we will agree on everything, but if I have known you at all, I’ll bet you want that dialogue and the chance to consider all sides of these issues.

Finally, I want to tell you how sorry I am for all that you are going through right now. I am sure this has been a great challenge to you, and some of the discourse surrounding this has been less than civil. I do not know all the facts.  I said that at the outset, and it bears repeating.  Because of that, I feel I have no business making any pronouncements about how this has been handled by you, Gallaudet, or the community at large, nor do I think it my place to say what should happen next.  I can only say that for all that you and your friends and family have been through, I am sorry.  I hope that blessings may come along for the ride with the troubles and we can all grow closer to respectful understanding from honest discussion, and that someday we will none of us, walk around with a divided heart.

I sent an email to your office last Sunday  proposing to give the Office of Diversity one of my pumpkin carvings in honor of Thursdays National Coming Out Day.  The next day, the news broke and every time I sat down to carve the pumpkin I was unable to stir my heart or hands to action. It has taken this week to settle my thoughts into some semblance of order, and the act of carving this piece “Sailors Kiss” has proved a balm to my worried soul.  I want to dedicate it to you Angela, and will be giving it to the Office of Diversity on Monday. I dedicate it to you in honor of the support you have given me in the past, and as token of the further conversation I hope we will enjoy.

With respect and love,

Adam Bartley