Monday, December 9, 2013

THE EMPLOYMENT NON-DISCRIMINATION ACT: IS ENDA THE DISCRIMINATION BILL TO END(A)LL DISCRIMINATION?

pic by Politico

Here’s the short answer: No.

Like most legislation, ENDA is chock-full of free passes and get-out clauses that protects the moneymakers in America and uses the average American worker as the poster-child for a cause. In theory, the bill would make it illegal for an employer to discriminate against a prospective or current employee on the basis of sexual orientation. However in reality ENDA is no more than—to borrow a term from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—a “skim-milk” solution to workplace discrimination.

Opposition to the bill’s passage primarily comes in two forms:

1.     It’s unnecessary
2.     It doesn’t go far enough

In early November the Senate voted 64-32 in favor of the bill’s passage. However, getting it put to a vote in the House presents itself as the bigger problem. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has argued against the bill, stating that its passage will present “frivolous litigation” for employers and will hurt the American workforce. Op-eds featured on PolicyMic and the Boston Globe share the opinion that ENDA is unnecessary. Discrimination is bad for business, plus the overwhelming majority of businesses don’t discriminate anyway so there’s no need to put it in law. Alternatively, protecting the rights of the LGBT workforce strips the employer’s right to property and property-regulation.

Arguments that the bill doesn’t go far enough gesture heavily to the faith-based and ministerial exceptions that find themselves wheedled into the bill. Religious organizations, operated businesses and parochial schools are exempt from the illegality to discriminate against employees on the grounds of sexual orientation. The ministerial exception, established in Hosanna-Tabor EvangelicalLutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2012) heard before the Supreme Court, stated that federal discrimination laws do not apply to the manner in which a religious organization (or affiliated business) chooses to hire/fire employees. This case, which has served as a backbone defense for the recent firings of LGBT employees from Catholic schools, was not about an individual’s sexual orientation or violation of a “morality clause”, it was about a woman, Cheryl Perich, who was fired after being diagnosed with narcolepsy.

Um…what?

The decision to give LGBT teachers a firm heave-ho out of Catholic schools is met with (startlingly) substantial support, though in my experience I would quantify it at maybe 10 percent—and not all of these people are of the “[g]od hates fags” variety, some are just firm believers that the government has no business telling religious organizations what to do. But, narcolepsy? Does narcolepsy impact upon an individual’s ability to carry out a particular religious message? Sure, the gays may sneak in asides about the incongruity between theory and practice in between prayers—oh wait, that never happens either.

Let's get down to brass tacks: why is this decision so damning for the LGBT community?

First of all, it has given religious organizations a “stay the hell out of our business” rite of passage that most business owners would die for. If a person who was out on (legal!) disability leave, is diagnosed with narcolepsy during this time, gets cleared to return to work and finds that her job has been given away, threatens to file suit, gets sacked for “insubordination” DOESN’T have a case in court, what does that mean for the more abstract cases that are upheld by administrations under a seemingly omnipotent “morality clause”? Safe to say, not a rainbow and unicorn parade.

And we’re not even talking about a close call, escaped by the seat of our ass kind of decision. We are talking about a UNANIMOUS decision by all nine justices that said the federal government cannot interfere with the appointment or managing of employees in religious organizations.

The second problem is the term “ministerial.” On the surface it seems this only applies to clergy members, but alas this also applies to English teachers, art teachers, science teachers, PE teachers…etc. The idea that anyone can be said at any time in a religious organization to be carrying out a ministerial role on behalf of said religion, gives employers a blanket rationale for why someone is violating this role.

ENDA will put a dent in the ice-block of LGBT discrimination, but have no illusions it will not END with this bill.

In October I wrote a comment piece in the Guardian about Tippi McCullough, a teacher at a Catholic school in Little Rock Arkansas who was fired 40 MINUTES after marrying her long-time partner in New Mexico. Just yesterday, French and Spanish teacher, Michael Griffin, at Holy Ghost Preparatory School in Philadelphia was fired after 12 years for marrying his long-term partner in New Jersey. As in [Al] Fischer, [Carla] Hale, [Ken] Bencomo and McCullough’s cases, the school administration has cited a breach of contract on the grounds of “morality” and failure to conduct oneself in accordance with Church teachings. With the exception of Fischer who was fired in 2012, all of the aforementioned teachers have been fired since just March of this year.

Over the weekend it was reported that Myrtle Grove Christian School in North Carolina has refused state funding so that it can force parents and students to sign a form stating that they will not participate or offer support for the “gay lifestyle.” Which, as infuriating as the concept is full stop, the rejection of funding at least signposts the future transparency with which the school will operate; even if what is made transparent is an active practice of discrimination…in a school…that educates children.


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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Moral Labyrinth


There are things we know to be right and wrong. How we got to that point of differentiating right from wrong may vary, but the fundamental truths about what is incontrovertibly wrong remains the same. Don’t kill, don’t steal, etc. The imperative ‘don’t’ allows for no exception. Right and wrong is black and white with no get out clause or acceptable exclusion. As we get older, we realize that life is more complicated than binary oppositions allow for. In philosophy, the most often used scenario to illustrate this complexity is the following:

We know it is wrong to steal.  However, you have children at home who are starving. Do you steal the loaf of bread to feed your family or allow your family to starve because stealing is wrong?

Stealing is always bad and doing the right thing is always good does not hold up in this scenario. Full of grey area, the overwhelming majority of individuals who are presented with this scenario choose stealing over starvation. Even though this example is modeled to expose grey area, the choices seem black and white by appealing to a different part of us, the more emotional part that is unable to bear the thought of children starving. While allowing your children to starve is a question of ethics and morality, the root problem of stealing precludes starvation from being the primary quandary. Feeding your family has possibility for error; we cannot know if stealing a loaf of bread will keep our children from starving the next day or day after (a variable that leads to more stealing), we also cannot know if we would be caught in the act resulting in more serious consequences (leaving your children without a parent). Whereas, if we rely on stealing is wrong to answer the quandary we take on no immediate risk of error. But the question then becomes not the possibility for error but rather the risk.

How much are we willing to risk?

I use this as an example to speak to something obviously more abstract and full of grey patches—responsibility. How many times have you found yourself saying “if I were [fill-in-the-blank] I would have done this differently.” Most of the time, whatever we would do differently is fairly innocuous. It is not an ethical quandary but rather a difference of opinion; the stakes remain even whether Person A or Person B performs the task. But what about issues with legitimate consequence? Here, I am thinking of action in terms of activism.

What is our responsibility to be an activist/advocate?

Unless you find yourself as plaintiff or defense taking on the State this question will manifest in more low stakes terms, relatively speaking. Speaking out against an injustice done to someone else, fighting from another’s corner, simply getting involved in a cause. This type of activism has varying degrees of responsibility. Leading a campaign, heading up a committee or writing letters/making phone calls all meet different demands on the responsibility spectrum, yet are integral to the other’s existence. A campaign succeeds or fails because of the sum of all of its parts working together. But there is a center that for better or worse becomes the “face” of a campaign. Whether literally or by name alone, this person has found themselves at the center of a battle that they may or may not have wanted to be in in the first place. This role is neither elected nor voluntary, but one of pure happenstance. 

If we think about landmark Supreme Court cases that have changed the course of an historical trajectory, what becomes clear is the individual: Roe v. Wade, United States v. Windsor, et al. Norma McCorvey (alias Jane Roe and since a complicated example in women's right to choose arguments) and Edith Windsor didn’t actively seek out their positions, rather they became what I will call, “accidental activists” as a result of something being done to them rather than perpetrating the doing. The doing comes much later when they refuse to allow what has been done to them to go unnoticed or accepted. The victim then becomes the perpetrator in this instance and what is left is a call to social action. But initially they did not seek out their newfound position as activist.

In some ways their positions are a dream hypothetical situation for activists. Rarely do activists find themselves at the center of a cause but rather leading the action that surrounds it. But what is at stake for the center who has found themselves as a front-person for women’s, African American, LGBT, worker’s rights, etc.? Are we in a position to rely upon them, from our privileged point of view, to do “the right thing”? Can we even conceptualize right and wrong in this context? 

Of course, change cannot happen from the center alone. By which I mean that a decision that occurs seemingly overnight is the result of a spectrum of people who have brought forward their personal experiences to combat a perceived injustice. Edith Windsor’s battle against DOMA was unavoidably compounded with the cases, media outrages and countless testimonials of everyday incidents of LGBT discrimination. While Edith Windsor became the face that ultimately took down DOMA, she also understood (or I believe she understood) her responsibility to represent a collective minority that is currently being oppressed or ignored by the State. Which at 83 years old was still a responsibility she accepted in spite of all the associated risks and loss of privacy.

We all have opinions of what should be done in this scenario. I would even go so far as to suggest that a majority would say that our responsibility is to be an Edie Windsor, someone who contests their personal wrong to its logical end for the benefit of others, rather than someone who chooses not to fight or exploit their position as an accidental activist for the greater good.

There is a long-running radio program on BBC4 entitled The Moral Maze that debates the moral implications of a range of issues from economics and education to social issues and individual rights (amongst many many others). The titling of the show as a Maze seems deliberately non-committal. Mazes imply a kind of inescapable end with no clear points to start and stop. The word speaks to the circular arguments we can and often do have about these issues that at once are deeply abstract and yet have very real consequences. The sheer magnitude of complexity in the issues itself gets entrammeled in philosophical debate before action is ever presented as possibility.

I have deliberately likened this quandary to a labyrinth over a maze. Although the two may at first appear interchangeable, a labyrinth differs in its construction around a center. For at the heart of a labyrinth lies a point upon which all space becomes constructed and manipulated. A labyrinth has the potential for purpose. From the center one must decide which way to turn. One path leads to action while the other retreats with the possibility for more median paths in-between. A labyrinth has options. Unlike a maze that can continue indefinitely, there comes a moment of unavoidable decisiveness in the labyrinth. While we may not have intended to find the center when we began, our survival ultimately depends upon actively making a choice and trusting that our route leads us out of the labyrinth.  


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Monday, September 23, 2013

How NOT to be a Bleephole on Twitter: Five Helpful Tips ( Response To The Public Backlash of The New Miss America)

Photographer: Michael Loccisano
Copyright Getty Images

For feminists the title, “Miss America” conjures up a kind of patriarchal acid reflux. It is gender performativity at its absolute worst, the pageantry of superficial expression and the horrifying realization that our nation is seriously undereducated. Brains and beauty as commonplace modifiers are issued as no more than pretense as the contestants struggle to geographically locate the Middle East, make insulting declarations on the sanctity of marriage and define sequestration as a qualifying race for the Kentucky Derby.

When I saw that Miss America was in the news this week, the first thing I thought was: “didn’t we just have one of those?” The next thought was a more expletively realized form of, “are you kidding me?” In case you’ve spent the week in L. Ron Hubbard’s starship, here is the condensed version of what happened:

Nina Davuluri, Syracuse born and graduate of the University of Michigan was crowned Miss America 2014 last Sunday (9/15). But thanks to the rapid-fire reportage offered by Generation Tweet, the former Miss New York’s deep dark secret didn’t go unnoticed for long. She may have been able to fool the national judges, the New York judges and virtually every photographer, but she was unable to circumvent the watchdog eye of the American public:


I want my tax dollars back! I’m moving to Canada!—Oh wait, this isn’t actually a joke.

While me and people like me were watching Downton Abbey reruns on PBS, Twitter was exploding with racist tweets about Miss America being a Muslim terrorist in a bikini. While Davuluri’s Wikipedia entry describes the backlash as a form of Indophobia, or anti-Indian sentiment, the content of the tweets points to an even more flabbergasting reality. Davuluri, an AMERICAN, of Indian (Hindu) descent was mistaken as an “Arab” and a Muslim. The controversy surrounding her win then, might more accurately suggest an unspoken assumption that Miss America should be white, because America is fundamentally white—which is fundamentally batshit crazy. Not to mention, racist. 

[While I was writing this article, Kenichi Ebina of Japanese origin won America’s Got Talent, a win which was met by the amateur pundits on twitter as a misrepresented viewing of “Japan’s got Talent.”]

In light of Davuluri’s win (and now Ebina’s) I have compiled a list of five “suggestions” that might prove useful before slipping up and exposing yourself as a racist asshole in 140 characters or less: 

1. All brown people are not “Arab.”

I’m sure somewhere in America, this reality is blowing someone’s mind; thinking:

“If all brown people aren’t Arab, how will we know who the enemy is?”

This is brownophobia (according to WikiAnswers).

For starters, we don’t live in a Die Hard film. In fact, we don’t even live in Rocky IV where Rocky has to defeat his Russian opponent—much larger, more “supplemental” than the 5’10” Sylvester Stallone—to somehow allegorically connect to the political tension between 1980’s America and Russia.

In fact, it may most certainly be perceived as culturally and racially insensitive to assume that all brown people are Arab—or (what they really mean) somehow related to the Taliban.  A fundamentalist political movement, not a race.


2. Muslim/Islam is not a race.

Identifying someone by their religious affiliation is almost as crazy as identifying them by their political inclination. If you were speaking to someone and they referred to a person as “Catholic” or “Presbyterian” or “Baptist” to somehow illuminate an individual’s physical markers, that would seem crazy. If the descriptor was somehow meant to allude to a particular moral code that seemed indelibly linked to their religious persuasion, then maybe this extra tidbit of knowledge is contextually relevant. But what race is a Presbyterian?

Anyone?

Then why is it okay to refer to someone as Muslim or Islam rather than their nationality? (Which in the context of Miss America is American.) Remember how confused everyone was when Brody (Damian Lewis) on Homeland turned out to be Muslim? Why is that? Because he is a white guy with red hair? His religious conversion then becomes explained as a kind of indoctrination during his captivity as a Prisoner of War by Al-Qaeda. Is this indeed, that crazy, that a Caucasian might convert to Islam? Islam is one of the three oldest religions on Earth, not a fly by night ideology cooked up in someone’s garage.

There are two groups of people whose identities are classed by both race and religion: Jewish and Sikh individuals. Not Muslim.  

3.    If you have to start a sentence with “I’m not racist, but…”

It might be a good idea to reconsider what follows.

4.    Your parents, my parents, their parents’ parents…

Were immigrants. Have you ever noticed how Americans are seemingly the only people on Earth who hyphenate their identity? (e.g. Italian-American, Indian-American, Arab-American, Korean-American…etc.) I feel confident in my sweeping assertion that in most parts of the world a nationality is identified by the country that issued the passport. In England, it would seem incongruous to hear someone say they were born in England but identified as German-British because their great-great-grandparents immigrated to Britain in the eighteenth century; but yet, it commonplace here in the US to provide transparency of our genealogical lines, and by extension authenticity.

In Angels in America (1995), Tony Kushner brilliantly describes America as “the melting pot […] where nothing melted.” Spoken through the voice of an elderly Eastern European Jewish rabbi, the “melting pot” as a metaphor crumbles underneath the weight of the real, lived history of Eastern Europe. A history that America is too young to possess, yet espoused with a particular arrogance in knowing more and knowing better than one’s elders.

But, in this universe, the one where people think they can hide behind a pixelated gravatar and spout racist quips over a Miss America pageant, it seems that our hyphenated existence—crammed in a pot without a burner— works only to divide us further into the haves and have nots, the “real” Americans and the immigrants; as if politics and religion weren’t divisive enough. 

5.    We’re talking about a “Miss America” pageant, not a Mensa convention.

Perhaps, this seems unfair to the beauty queens—and truly, I’m sure it is. I’m sure they are lovely women and I sort of remember enjoying Miss Congeniality. But, I am relying upon superficial anti-beauty pageant rhetoric to the same effect that artificial eyelashes can make or break a chance at the crown. A splodgy application of fake tan can take a girl from a predicted top five to an entire erasure from the live show. But in a nation where girls suffer serious body consciousness—endure abhorrent bullying for bad hair, love handles or a wonky eye—it seems only responsible to offer an alternative rooted in reality to counter the idealized visions of Miss America, glam mags or virtually any living celebrity.

If you want to be angry about something be angry about Syria, Navy Yard and the Kenyan hostage situation. Be angry about the fact that the government has cut spending on food stamps by $40 billion dollars! Because the government thinks we’re lazy and just to show us they’re going to strike—excuse me, white collar workers don’t strike, they just decide in unison not to go to work because they can’t get along—until we stop sponging off the government, living in the lap of luxury on $175/month and wanting healthcare to show for all of the money we spend in taxes so Warren Buffet doesn't have to. These, in my opinion, are things you should get angry about—livid, even—but not about a non-white Miss America who challenges your backwards comfort zone just by the color of her (enviably unblemished) skin.

If I seem hyperbolic, maybe even a bit patronizing, it’s because I intend to be. Until we are able to confront these situations with abject horror and incredulity, the cloaked racism that emerges at the intersection of popular culture and reality will continue to sink its roots while our eyes are averted. When we say, “it’s just a joke” or “I am being ironic” we enable a discourse that is loaded with the racial tensions that very clearly exist in contemporary America. The myth of a post-racial society is exactly that, a myth.

Articles that have emerged throughout the last week have called for public “shaming” of racist behavior; a shaming that relies on equality and color-blindness rather than equality and diversity. To be color-blind is to be ignorant. To be color-blind ignores the complexities of an individual’s heritage and experience.  Color-blindness, like sex-blindness, is what allows for loaded terms like post-racial and post-feminism to achieve a state of coherency out of willful ignorance.

This issue is not only relevant to America, but in the case of Miss America, it kind of sort of matters. Rather than celebrating the (albeit, tepid) display of diversity across the competition  (inclusion of non-white contestants were first permitted in 1970) we are engaging in an argument over what America—a fundamental abstraction—looks like; which, if the backlash that has ensued speaks for anything, it's that it looks like Miley Cyrus, even if it's embarrassing.

We, as Americans and as people, could learn a great deal from Sesame Street.  

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Thursday, September 12, 2013

After the Halestorm: A Look Back on a Campaign


Pic by THIS WEEK NEWS

I was driving to Toronto when I got word my campaign had ended. Just miles outside of Buffalo, I received a call from a local reporter in Columbus, OH asking for my statement to the settlement (what settlement?). That’s how I got the news.

Let’s start from the beginning.

Carla Hale is a mother, a partner and a (now-ex) physical education teacher. She had taught at my old high school in Columbus, Ohio—Bishop Watterson—for 19 years and had been the first person I met that dreadful summer when I was 14, chubby and forced to take physical education with 100 psuedo-strangers, whose only prior acquaintance I had made at awkward middle school dances and summer parish festivals. Carla Hale was a no-bullshit kind of teacher; but we also knew that in a time of need she would extend us the greatest compassion. This was over 10 years ago.

Fast forward to April 2013.

I had just returned to Columbus, OH from London (UK) where I had spent the last five years completing a PhD. Four days back, I began hearing rumors that Carla Hale had been fired from Watterson, the details of which at the time were still ambiguous.  Without much digging the reason for her termination began to crystallize through the low-mutterings of Ms. Hale’s sexuality and the stock rationalization: “well, it is a Catholic school.” But after 19 years? This was the question that perplexed and continues to perplex anyone acquainted with the story. How, after 19 years, did the P.E. Teacher’s sexuality become an issue?

Since April, reporters have often asked me if we “knew” all along that Carla Hale was a lesbian. To which I often, and antagonistically, answered, “what does a homosexual look like?” They wanted me to revert to stereotype, the prodding encouragement of “she was a P.E. teacher” or by gesturing towards her cropped hair. They wanted me to satisfy the curiosity with an unspoken resignation that we knew but didn’t care, or we knew and it made no impact on her professional capabilities. All of which could have been true, but at the time, when I was 14 and I was so preoccupied with my crimping iron and what well-ranked universities look for in prospective students, I could have cared less about the private life of Carla Hale, or any other teacher for that matter.

So after 19 years, how did Carla Hale’s sexuality become the scarlet letter talk of the town? The answer is simple and shocking: an obituary.

Carla Hale’s mother passed away at the end of February.  The obituary printed in the Columbus Dispatch detailed the list of surviving kin as “Carla (Julie) Hale.” The events leading up to her termination go as follows (though, it should be said that the factuality of these details has been brought into question over the last few months):

A Watterson student goes home after school and asks her parent to pray for Ms. Hale as her mother has just passed. The student’s parent pulls the obituary and sees “Julie” listed after the P.E. teacher’s name. Incensed, the parent writes a letter to the Bishop of Columbus and expresses their discomfort with a lesbian teacher being allowed to teach in a Catholic school, adding that they will allow the Diocese time to conduct an investigation and will follow up with the school.

The letter was signed anonymously as a “Concerned Parent.” Carla Hale was terminated on March 28, 2013: Holy Thursday.

Some facts to note: Carla Hale was fired under a “morality clause” in her contract, which permits the school to terminate an employee due to any behavior deemed immoral. However, Columbus is one of 29 cities in the state of Ohio that upholds an anti-discrimination ordinance, making it illegal to fire an individual based upon sexuality. (Ohio is currently trying to make it a statewide ordinance under the Equal Housing and Employment Act, though this act would still allow for faith-based exemption.)

In early April I started a Facebook group calling to take action which eventually transformed in the campaign #halestormOhio which sought two things: 1. Carla Hale’s reinstatement and 2. Revision of Diocesan policy in accordance with the municipal anti-discrimination ordinance. Within weeks we had amassed 4,500 individuals nationally who had joined our movement, thanks in large to the endorsements from celebrities George Takei and Dan Savage. A petition seeking Hale’s reinstatement on change.org obtained 130,000 signatures and we were able to secure news coverage in the NYTimes, LATimes, Guardian, Huffington Post and an interview with NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. There were of course the demonstrations at the Diocese, letter writing campaigns and phone trees mobilized and the unabashed solicitation of potential allies.

One of the most beneficial links we were able to make came in the form of the Central Ohio AFL-CIO, and particularly Pride @ Work, an AFL-CIO constituency organization that defends LGBTQ individuals in the workplace. With their help, we were able to transform this into a labor issue teaming up to host events and press conferences, encouraging the community and politicians to see work as the fundamental determinant in an individual’s success; an opportunity that was now being withheld from Carla Hale.

By June I had lost all track of time. I had been back in the US for two months and it had felt like 10 minutes. My identity as an individual had been completely subsumed by the campaign. The people closest to me were facing their own struggles and obstacles but I was too blind to see it. Nothing mattered to me quite like the campaign. If there is anything I am grateful for in this present moment, it’s that the people I only half-listened to stuck around and rode it out with me.

What was true when I started the campaign remains true for me now: this was always bigger than one individual. I was fighting for not only the restoration of Carla Hale’s reputation but also to put in motion measures to prevent this from happening to someone else. Carla Hale was not the first person this has happened to and sadly, is already proving not to be the last. In 2012 Al Fischer was fired from a Catholic School in St. Louis, MO after his plans to marry his partner of 20 years became public knowledge. And now, Ken Bencomo, an English teacher at St. Lucy’s Priory High School in a suburb of LA, has been fired just in August of this year after marrying his partner on July 1, after the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage enabled California’s same-sex marriages to continue. Ken Bencomo taught at St. Lucy’s for 17 years.

None of what I have said so far is what fills me with writer’s block. The campaign, the wins and losses, the details of Carla Hale’s case which I know better than the birth dates of my extended family, none of that. It’s the end that I’m not so sure of. It’s my own inability, or rather, resistance to separate the needs of the individual from the cause that might be responsible for this hang-up.

On August 15, sometime mid-afternoon Carla Hale accepted a confidential settlement from the Diocese. Carla Hale would not be reinstated to her previous position but would be acknowledged for her years of service at Bishop Watterson High School. 

As a private citizen, I can respect Carla Hale's need to put all of this behind her. Her life has been put on display and scrutinized in a manner most people could never dream of. However, the larger issues this campaign fought for are still apparent: American workers are being subjected to discrimination. Lesbian and gay workers in this situation are second-class citizens. The Catholic Diocese has proven that there is a price tag attached to their right to enforce discrimination in the workplace that overrules municipal legislation. The right of any public or private organization or faith to overwrite the democratic process and civil laws sets a dangerous precedent. However our issues are still outstanding: discriminatory practices are still being endorsed and loyal and faithful teachers are being forced out of employment.  Who’s next?

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