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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