An Open Letter to the Gallaudet University Community
By Adam Bartley
The title of this writing may seem at odds with the Adam that many of you may know, but it is true. All this will be made clear in due course as I proceed with my thoughts on the need for Unified Dialogue to address LGBTQA students, faculty and staff concerns on campus. Let me first be clear at the outset on what I mean by Unified Dialogue. Each time I use that term I mean to call for Dialogue that brings all of us, students, faculty and staff together at the same time in the same place to see the same discussion. The very best of intentions may have led to the original plan to have a students only meeting, but given the long absence of public discourse on these issues, it is almost unavoidable that many of us would see sequestered dialogues as a divide and conquer strategy. I propose here that dialogue to address these issues must begin with opportunities for all the players to be at the table together.
Months now have passed while LGBTQA community members have waited for a forum to discuss the crisis presented by the signing of a petition by our Chief Diversity Officer that sought to bring Marriage Equality to a popular referendum in order to overturn the existing law of equal marriage for all citizens of Maryland. The crisis prompted national attention and fierce debate across the nation, while on our campus no public forum has yet taken place to discuss the myriad issues involved. The lack of public discourse has resulted in fragmented discussion in small groups and on social media and in some cases has devolved into slurs and accusations. Some repercussions have been harder to see when the discourse is seen only from the vantage of ones own point of view. As an example, the impact on our LGBTQA People of Color, with demands that they pick sides and see the conflict through only a lens of orientation OR race.
In recent days I have seen some horrible statements directed toward Dr. Angela McCaskill and I am saddened and horrified by some of what I have seen. I have also seen people referring to a Lesbian colleague here at Gallaudet as “that butch bitch”. This just reinforces the hetero normative idea that cisgender gay people have more worth. Our LGBTQA community of students, faculty, staff, and alumni are understandably upset. This crisis goes to the heart of our civil rights and many feel that we are tired of being told to be patient and take the higher ground. It is easy for majority group members to miss how frustrating these statements can be to people who have waited their whole lives for the same civil rights afforded to our heterosexual neighbors, family and friends.
That we are angry is understandable and valid. That some few turn their anger to hate speech, racial slurs, and threats is NOT. It is reprehensible, and our whole community should speak out against it. I understand where it comes from. I grew up as an out gay man in rural Texas and have had many a slur hurled at me. Faggot is only the least imaginative of the names I was called growing up, and I have taken more than one beating over it. So I understand the anger, and the desire to retaliate, but nothing excuses the abhorrent approach that some in our community are taking.
That Angela has been the victim of such threats and horrid racial slurs must be addressed by all of us, while remembering that the questions and problems presented by her signing of the petition and affiliation with the Family Research Council still stand. We, the LGBTQA community of students faculty and staff and alumni, must stand against the spewing of hate against Angela while demanding unified dialogue that address the valid questions and problems our community faces.
So I will stand against hate directed against Angela with all my strength, and with the same heart I will ask hard questions. These questions are for her, for us as a community, and for the larger world. I want to ask Dr. McCaskill if she still believes that popular referenda are appropriate ways to determine the rights of a minority people. I intend to ask if it is appropriate for the particular tenets of whatever religion happens to be the current majority to be codified into laws that remove the Human Rights of a minority people. I want to ask the whole nation how we balance personal codes of morality with just laws that protect all citizens regardless of their religious beliefs, after all the most popular code today may be the minority tomorrow. I plan to ask Dr McCaskill how she understands the impact on LGBTQA community members seeing her thank with The Family Research Counciland Tony Perkins. I want to tell her how much it hurt me to drive to work each day after the crisis broke and see that odious man with his hateful truck and trailer plastered with signs proclaiming the evil of my very existence. And I want to ask why my champion did not stand up to her congregation and stand up for my CIVIL, not religious, right of marriage! Alas I know the answer to the last question, because it is easier to be an ally only some of the time. I know this because I am a Racist, Audist, Sexist, Ethnocentric, Homophobe.
I am a child of an Anglo mother and a Mexican father, though I appear to be only Caucasian and am granted the privilege that comes with being a White Male in our society. I am physically hard-of-hearing, but culturally and functionally Hearing, with the privilege that comes with that as well.
I have had the good fortune of being fostered by people from many backgrounds in my journey through the child welfare system. Some of the fosters and shelter/group home staff were far from good, but enough good people made an appearance on my path to point me on the right road. Among the best were my very first foster parents and my very last.
The first was in 1976, when Sofie and Pa, Black Southern Baptists, took in my little brother and me for a year while my family troubles were being worked out. Every day Sofie would tell us how much our mother loved us, but just needed some help for a while. We lived in a predominantly Black neighborhood, had all Black siblings and playmates, and attended a Black Southern Baptist Church every Sunday. While I would not describe myself as a Christian today, the christian churches I have felt most at home in have been Black churches, with call and response, music that shouts joy and travails, and riots of color in the hats of the ladies. Life was good though I was old enough to worry about my mom often. The community was so good to Cody and I that we had no idea how unheard of it was for Black families to foster White kids. It was certainly ok to foster Black kids with White families, but the converse was new ground. Despite all this, affinity is not the same as membership, and as i have already stated I am a racist as you will see.
My last foster parents were an amazing couple; Luke, a 2nd generation Lebanese-American and June SummerWind, a proud Cherokee Choctaw woman. They took me into their lives when I was fresh off the streets after running away from the institutions and shelters I had spent too many years living in. They shared their home, their languages, foods, cultures and religion with me, and along with the gifts the Deaf Community had given me over the years, changed my life forever. Nonetheless, a drop of Indian blood and and being adopted into the culture does not make me an Indian any more than speaking a little Arabic and cooking some taditional foods makes me Arab. Being hard-of-hearing gives me glimpse of some experiences shared with Deaf people, but I will never understand what it is to be Deaf. And lest you forget, I am still an Ethnocentric Audist.
I say all this to show that as a gay man, exposed to and embraced by so many peoples and cultures, you wouldn’t expect that I would be guilty of racism, sexism, audism and homophobia. It may even seem odd to some that a gay person could also be homophobic, but it is possible and I have been guilty of all the charges I level on myself. At times I have been guilty by direct action or speech, but far more often I have been guilty by complicity, by silence. I grew up a proud Texan, often in rural areas, and racism and the collection of ism’s that intersect in so many of us was common and taken as a matter of fact. Even though I knew better on some levels, I internalized many attitudes and assumptions from the world around me. It has taken years for me to learn to recognize many of these, and I still have a great deal of work ahead of me.
I have made sexist and even rape-culture approving jokes.
I have used the N*** word in anger, far more often I have been guilty of silence when others (especially loved ones) used it.
I have made Trans-phobic remarks even though one of the people I hold most dear and owe a life debt to is a Trans-Man.
I have oppressed Deaf people by not questioning long held assumptions, or deferring to Hearing or Speaking people over others. I have done it by not examining how I function as an interpreter through a Deaf lens to understand when and how I perpetuate Audism. I have done this both out of ignorance and out of refusal to grow and face my faults.
I have been oppressive to my Gay brothers and sisters both before I came out at 14 and afterwards. I have been homophobic in internalizing the dominant society’s beliefs about what kind of gay or lesbian person has more worth based on how well they fit the cisgender norms I have grown up with.
So now that you understand how I am a Racist, Sexist, Audist, Homophobe, this leads me now to the subtitle of this piece. I believe that Unified Dialogues CAN heal our community. I know this in my heart of hearts because dialog is exactly how I have learned to begin to change my racist assumptions, my homophobic values, my Audist behaviors. If not for loving, brave people who talked to me and heard me, I would never have had the opportunity to change. Deaf friends and colleagues have called me on these behaviors over the years, sometimes patiently and sometimes with great frustration.
Even after the moment of epiphany, it takes time and work to change behavior. As an example, many years after I learned to sign with some fluency I was at a bar with Deaf friends, engaged in a conversation when someone shouted my name and without a thought I turned towards the shouter. When I returned my gaze to my Deaf friend they told me irately that “I’ve put up with this habit forever with you, but if any spoken chatter is going to be more important than what I have to say, I don’t see any reason to talk to you.” I was stunned and immediately ‘got it’. Nonetheless, after becoming conscious of this Audist habit it still took me years to un-learn the habit.
Given time and courage, I have learned to stand against racism, audism, sexism, ageism, transphobia and homophobia within myself and when I see it in others. I have learned to be ashamed of my past behavior in the face of the love I have received from many of the communities that I have at times oppressed. I have learned to tell loved ones and strangers that when they use the N**** word, I hurt because I see Sofie and Pa having those words hurled at them. I have learned to stand up to the transphobic remark by telling the person uttering it that a Trans-man taught me more about what it means to be an honorable man in this world than anyone else.
Dialogue is not a pill that cures all ills, and puts the issues in the dust bin to be rid of. It can at best be an opportunity to provide a glimpse of another way to see the issues, a light on a path forward to a better future. The path still needs to be trod for that future to be realized, and epiphany is not enough.
If dialog is to heal our community, then it must be an open, safe forum that allows for all sides to hear each other. I am only one man, and it is only my reasoned opinion, but I believe that we need Angela here to be part of this dialogue. We need Students. We need Faculty, both tenured and non-tenured. We need our Staff. We need LGBTQA community members, and we need the members of our community that do not support Marriage Equality at the table. Unified Dialogue, with all our constituencies together is important in order to create shared understanding, to ensure that our young LGBTQA students are not deprived of their adult community member allies, to ensure that the Faculty and Staff truly see what the students bring to the discussion, and to create an opportunity for the best in us to model civil dialogue that respects all parties.
The issues this crisis has brought to the forefront for us go beyond the particular actions and decisions made by Angela and the University. There are issues here worth examining for all of us. Every LGBTQA person has people in their lives who love them, but feel conflicted by their personal moral or religious beliefs. How do we citizens of the United States balance the competing rights that are involved? Can a champion of diversity and equity truly serve a community while working against the fight for equal protection under the law for that community? Should a group of a minority people be denied access to what is recognized by the United Nations as a basic Human Right based on the religious interpretations of a majority people? Is it ethical for a civil right to be determined by a popular majority? I have presented arguments in past writings for the notion that this course of action does great injustice to the affected minority. This does not mean I believe that people who believe it appropriate for referenda are themselves bad people. I beleive they just haven’t seen and understood why this does great harm and is unjust at its core.
I have have called myself a racist, sexist, audist, homophobe here not because I am a whole hearted racist, sexist, etc. but because the process of unpacking the ism’s is always continuing. My ongoing personal journey in confronting my racism, sexism, audism, bigotry and homophobia makes me certain that the only course of action that can begin to create change is honest dialogue. It may seem impossible, but I promise you it is merely difficult, to create civil discourse in the face of such deeply held beliefs. We can do it, IF we do it together, committed to asking hard questions, dealing with difficult answers, and changing not all at once, but everyday.
Art by Mae Sellers