Chief Diversity Officer Opposes Gay Marriage, Is Suspended From Work, Raises Important Questions

Dr. Angela McCaskill has a very impressive record. She was the first deaf African American woman to earn a Ph.D. from Gallaudet University, a federally chartered university for the education of deaf and hard of hearing people located in Washington, DC. According to her faculty page on the university’s website, she has worked for Gallaudet for 23 years in various capacities, and was appointed the Deputy to the President and Associate Provost of Diversity and Inclusion just under two years ago, on January 3, 2011. She has held many leadership roles in a variety of places, including the US Department of Education and the Model Secondary School for the Deaf, and has worked as a teacher, a research administrator, and an education program specialist. She currently serves on the Board of Trustees of the Maryland School for the Deaf.

But on Wednesday of this week she was placed on paid administrative leave from her position as chief diversity officer at Gallaudet University, because during a recent church service she signed a petition opposing gay marriage.

Dr. Angela McCaskill via dcist.com

Gallaudet University President, T. Alan Hurwitz, released a statement that has since been posted (and hotly debated) on the university’s Facebook giving a brief (but not very detailed or informative) explanation for his decision to put Dr. McCaskill on leave.

“I want to inform the community that I have placed Dr. Angela McCaskill on paid administrative leave effective immediately. It recently came to my attention that Dr. McCaskill has participated in a legislative initiative that some feel is inappropriate for an individual serving as Chief Diversity Officer; however, other individuals feel differently. I will use the extended time while she is on administrative leave to determine the appropriate next steps taking into consideration the duties of this position at the university. In the meantime an interim Chief Diversity Officer will be announced in the near future.”

Some of the things that have happened since that decision was publicized are obvious and expected. The Family Research Council has demanded that the university be fined and that President Hurwitz be fired, and they have created a petition to reinstate Dr. McCaskill immediately. For the record, this group was labeled a hate organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and they feel that “wherever marriage is redefined,” “civil rights violations” are sure to follow. Which is funny, because I thought that denying humans the right to get married simply because you’ve interpreted the Bible to say it shouldn’t be so was a civil rights violation, but hey, they’re the ones “advancing faith, family and freedom” so what do I know!

Another fairly obvious thing is that Dr. McCaskill is extremely upset, and her husband reportedly told a reporter that his wife is so shaken up that she is currently under a doctor’s care, and that she will be hiring a lawyer.

Some of the things that have happened since the decision are less expected, though, or at least less obvious. For example, one group that has taken major issue with Hurwitz’s decision is Marylanders for Marriage Equality. In case the name didn’t tip you off, these people are way more likely to be nice to us than our besties over at The Family Research Council. But this marriage equality group has gone on record strongly opposing the school’s decision. Josh Levin, the campaign manager for the group, said:

“We strongly disagree with the decision to put the chief diversity officer on leave and hope she is reinstated immediately. Everyone is entitled to free speech and to their own opinion about Question 6 (the referendum on the ballot), which is about treating everyone fairly and equally under the law.”

The thing is, while there are definitely a lot of different identities and angles at play here, I’m not entirely sure this can be framed as a cut-and-dry matter of freedom of speech. Particularly since we have entered the age of social media and a definite decline of privacy, I think it’s a given that our actions outside of the office can and do affect our professional persona, and can actually cost us a job. Whether one thinks it is fair or not, the amount of surveillance the average citizen is subjected to when it comes to their personal life makes keeping the personal and the professional separate almost impossible. I think, rather than arguing that McCaskill has the legal freedom to sign whatever political documents she wants to (because of course she does) it would be more interesting and overall beneficial to discuss if there are instances where it is legitimate for a person’s personal choices made outside of the work environment to bar them from performing specific jobs.

2006 Student Protest at Gallaudet via NYTimes

The question of identity playing a role in ability to work at Gallaudet has come up before, both in 1988 and 2006. In 1988, students were outraged when the university selected a hearing president, Elisabeth Zinser. The school had never selected a deaf person, and the students, faculty, and alumni all stood together in a movement that has since become known as Deaf President Now, and demanded that the next president be Deaf. After a week of student strikes and other forms of protest, Zinser was replaced by I. King Jordan, the first Deaf president of Gallaudet. In 2006 protests from the students and faculty began again, this time because of the potential appointment of Jane Fernandes to the presidency. Those protesting Fernandes said it was her lack of warmth and ability to lead, and the lack of racial diversity among the finalists that made them angry, but others accused the protestors of thinking Fernandes was “not Deaf enough” because she wasn’t fluent in American Sign Language and wanted to open the school to all kinds of deaf people. Fernandes did not become president.

In both of these scenarios, students and faculty of the school wanted a person with a specific identity to take on the role as their leader, and I don’t blame them. It makes perfect sense. Now, in 2012, the president of the school wants to evaluate if a woman who would sign a petition against marriage equality is the right fit for a position that is designed to create and foster diversity. Is that so wrong?

Based on the current media coverage, it seems that Dr. McCaskill has many defenders, including people who do actually support marriage equality. It has been reported that Dr. McCaskill was a friend and supporter of the LGBTQ community on campus, and while many students feel shocked and betrayed at this news, there are members of the Gallaudet LGBTQ community who want to give Dr. McCaskill a second chance or, at the very least, hear what she has to say. It is expected that she will issue an apology.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this situation since I first learned about it yesterday, and I think that’s because it is forcing me to assess my “core values,” as Bette Porter might say. My brain is telling me that it is possible that Dr. McCaskill can perform her professional duties regardless of any political feelings she may have, and I also keep reminding myself that we don’t know the full story and have yet to hear from Dr. McCaskill herself.

However. I guess I just don’t believe that someone who is actively against marriage equality could really have my best interests at heart. I know people go in to jobs they don’t like and do things they don’t believe in every day — many of the people reading this probably do, and that’s okay. So I suppose it’s possible that she could set her personal feelings aside and do her job, up to and including supporting queer people in the Gallaudet community. But when it comes to a position that literally requires you to demand equality, does it really make sense to employ someone who doesn’t agree with it? Sure, someone who doesn’t believe in global warming could work for an environmental non-profit and do a fine job on the clock, then go home and refuse to recycle, but wouldn’t it make more sense to hire someone who truly believes in the cause? When you are a diversity officer, your cause is human beings. And the thing about phoning in responsibilities at a large corporation is that even if people sense you don’t care, they likely won’t feel uncomfortable approaching you and asking you to do your job. Frankly, even the environment won’t notice if you’re phoning it in at a green non-profit, you know? You’ll just do your stuff, and hopefully you’ll do it well, and your personal beliefs can kind of remain hidden, and everything will be okay.

When your personal beliefs are, “I do not believe in equality for a group of humans,” but your job title requires you to demand and work towards equality for all humans, it becomes questionable if you can phone it in. That, in my mind, is the major question in this case. Can a person create a safe space in their work environment when they have actively participated in perpetuating unsafe spaces in their personal environment?

My gut reaction is no, but the mere fact that Dr. McCaskill was employed at the school for 23 years and the fact that many LGBTQ students cite her as an ally and a friend make me feel like there is a key component of this story that is missing. I’m just having trouble making everything add up. I wonder if President Hurwitz is wrestling with his own core values and struggling with the same questions as he works to make the decision about whether Dr. McCaskill should return to the university or be let go. I wonder if there is more to this story. I wonder what will happen next, and I wonder what it will mean in the fight for equality — not just marriage equality, but full real equality like most of us can’t even begin to imagine — moving forward.

Vanessa is a queer feminist writer and photographer currently based in New York. She really misses Portland. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 277 articles for us.

36 Comments

  1. “Particularly since we have entered the age of social media and a definite decline of privacy, I think it’s a given that our actions outside of the office can and do affect our professional persona, and can actually cost us a job.”

    Very good point. Personally, that is one of the many reasons I don’t use Facebook (or similar sites) and don’t put anything online about me in general. That’s just me, though.

  2. Great article – I think that the d/Deaf community, particularly the community connected to Gallaudet, has a lot of experience with negotiating how identity intersects with official job duties, which makes this an even more interesting story. While the situation at hand sucks for all involved, I think that the way in which it’s explored, as well as however the eventual resolution pans out, will be something that’s useful for a lot of other organizations going forward.

  3. This was really interesting and made me go look up the history of Galladuet even further. I agree with the decision to suspend her pending further investigation-hopefully something else is going on and there’s some sort of misunderstanding? Just because things seem so conflicting. But in the event she did sign the petition and supports it, then I think they really should remove her. Can’t have a diversity officer who doesn’t appreciate diversity.

    • So diversity means accepting everything? The beliefs of the people in front of you? What happens when you have people who have diametrically opposed beliefs trying to get into the university? Who gets in? The people with the most politically correct beliefs? It’s all nice and fuzzy when people talk about diversity and inclusion, but reality is that sometimes people have very different beliefs. Diversity does not mean that you are accepting of those differences. As L stated, you can’t have a diversity officer who opposes redefining marriage and she has to be let go. When you let go of everyone who does not meet your litmus test of ideological purity, eventually, you will find yourself all alone. That’s not diversity; it’s exclusion and isolation of those who do not believe what you believe.

      • I think L is just trying to point out that a diversity officer needs to be tolerant in the least (and apparently McCaskill was in her community which is making me scratch my head a little over how I feel about her suspension).

      • It’s not being “politically correct,” it’s about making sure that a diversity officer is someone who, you know, actually respects diversity. And when the way the school interprets that diversity includes LGBT students, then yes, you have to be accepting of LGBT people. Talking about “accepting everything,” like every slippery-slope argument applied to this issue, is ridiculous and trying to distract from the actual issue at hand.

        I’m not quite sure how I feel about this, but I know your dismissive nonsense isn’t the answer. Believe it or not, LGBT people do not have to “respect different beliefs” when those beliefs don’t respect us.

        • Also, isn’t a Diversity Officer’s job to represent and support people from diverse backgrounds? If so, how can she adequately perform her job if she believes that a certain subset of the population – a subset which she is paid to represent and support – is in fact *not entitled* to the same rights in law as everybody else?

      • ‘Political correctness’ is a reactionary term tellingly used by people who feel their privilege is under threat.
        The diversity officer is not required to treat pro- and anti-human rights rhetoric as equally valid. NAACP isn’t equal to the KKK and the Human Rights Campaign isn’t equal to the Family Research Council. Not all beliefs are equal if some demand the denial of human rights while others don’t.
        The equivalent for ‘disallow gay marriage’ is not ‘allow gay marriage’, but rather ‘disallow straight marriage’.
        Diversity officers would not be allowed to support a student group made up of gay people who opposed heterosexual adoption, or a black students’ association that wanted all white students to use different water fountains.

  4. Hi. I can see where there could be controversy, and to an extent I think that controversy is warranted.

    BUT LGBTQ issues are at the core, human rights issues–something that we don’t always address, but in this political season I’m addressing it. The issue of marriage equality is one of those issues where one group of couples gets rights from the government, and right now a very similar group of couples does not and cannot get rights from the government. For some terrible terrible reason, that I hope will eventually be rectified, the majority is getting to vote on the (IDENTICAL) rights of the minority right now.

    So if she was against governmental rights for any other marginalized group (AS A DIVERSITY OFFICER, MIND YOU) I don’t even see that there would be much controversy. She would be fired.

    • “For some terrible terrible reason, that I hope will eventually be rectified, the majority is getting to vote on the (IDENTICAL) rights of the minority right now.”

      This whole thing makes my blood run cold. Human rights. HUMAN. RIGHTS.

      I agree with everyone that as said history will look back on this whole situation and be ashamed.

      If the reports are actually correct and she did sign that petition, McCaskill should definitely not be allowed to continue in her position.

      She’s supposed to be looking out for vulnerable minorities and promoting acceptance and safety for all the students.

      If I was a LBQTQ student there, I would feel sick to my stomach that the person employed to head my support system, held beliefs that fundamentally denied my rights as a person.

  5. Dr. Mccaskill has the right to believe and vote however she chooses.That’s not what this is about.The issue here is that her job as chief diversity officer is to be an unwavering advocate for diversity and inclusion. If there is anyone that should be advocating for marriage equality, it’s her. How can she be a true advocate to lgbta students/faculty/staff if she believes that lgbta people do not deserve equal rights? How can the lgbta students, faculty and staff on campus truly trust that she has their best interests at heart? After this incident, they clearly can’t.

    Dr. Mccaskill lied that she was qualified for this job. Anyone that doesn’t truly believe in equality for all is NOT qualified to be chief diversity officer. Would an executive director hired to lead a pro-choice organization who is really pro-life be qualified to lead the organization? By day she leads pro-choice activities but by night she signs pro-life legislation. Would this organization’s board of directors be justified in firing her? You bet they would. This situation is no different. President T. Alan Hurwitz did the right thing by placing Dr. Mccaskill on administrative leave. Her employment at the university should be terminated, not for signing the petition but for her deception.

    I have also learned that not everyone at Gallaudet felt she was an ally.

  6. I’m not convinced it’s true she signed the petition and holds those beliefs. So far the evidence for that seems to come from one blog. I just hope the university did thorough fact checking and at least talked to her before they made their decision. I also think they should have asked her to step aside before forcibly suspending her.
    In the end, if she is really firmly against LGB equality, I agree that she should be asked to leave, but I also think the university hasn’t handled this quite right.

  7. You know, when I read this at first I was conflicted, but I’m not anymore: I don’t think she should be suspended or fired, because I am very firmly against employers using Facebook or personal blogs as a means of establishing a prospective or current employee’s qualifications. The trend of using social media to spy on your people when they’re off-duty has got to stop. Think of it from the other perspective: would you want a conservative company disqualifying you from employment/ firing you because they found out you’re queer? No, of course not.

    What’s good for the goose is good for the gander here. STOP all job discrimination based on social media.

    • But your analogy with the conservative company firing a queer employee doesn’t fit this situation. Her job is to promote diversity, period. That diversity includes demanding that the rights of marginalized groups (such as LGBTQ*) be met and respected. You can’t leave that job when you go home at night – you can’t not actually believe in full-equality when THAT IS YOUR JOB.

      A conservative company, however, should not have the same right in firing an employee because the employee is queer – being straight is not a prerequisite of the job, but more importantly, that person’s job ISN’T TO BE HETEROSEXUAL, ergo any deviation from that is irrelevant. Those two are not the same, and a number of states recognize that very action as being illegal.

  8. The way this story is being reported locally in DC, it seems as though a colleague at Gallaudet saw her name on the petition itself (because the names of petition-signers are generally publicly available) and shared that information with the University. So if that is in fact the case, it has nothing to do with social media at all.

    • hi! yes, the way i read it, a colleague saw her name on the petition (on a website that published the names, i believe) and reported it. social media wasn’t involved in this case (though unless i read the wrong facts, the internet did play a role) but i was suggesting that in a world where social media makes our private lives so accessible, we have to figure out if we can really keep a divisive line between the public & private selves, and as such the professional & the personal selves. i’m sorry if i didn’t make that clear in the original post.

    • The thing is, if you don’t believe I deserve the same rights you receive, that means you don’t view me as an equal; I’m somehow lesser, sub-human.

      A person who sees me that way is not someone I can have a reasonable conversation with, and really has no business being in “a position designed to create and foster diversity”.

    • I get that governmentally sanctioned marriage in and of itself is a bizarre and yes, flawed institution. But…yeah, just refer to what Randahl said. If some people get those rights, everyone should.

      But you’re not going to tear down the institution and make everything better by saying you’re against same-sex marriage.

      (Is ANYBODY thinking of Itty Bitty Titty Committee right now? Cause I am).

      • Yeah, this is what I don’t get about the idea that LGBT people shouldn’t have equal marriage rights because marriage is a patriarchal institution that shouldn’t be sanctioned by the government blah blah blah.

        The fact of the matter, though, is that it currently IS sanctioned by the government, and as long as that is the case, same-sex couples should have the same right to it as opposite-sex ones. And like, it’s fine if some college student drunk on queer theory thinks that marriage is too patriarchal for them every to be interested in it, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are a lot of other same-sex couples who DO want to get married, and I don’t think that being attracted to the same gender necessarily means you have to spurn traditional relationship models if that’s not what you’re into.

    • It’s one thing to have that attitude if you’re queer (and I still personally disagree with that) and another if you’re straight, though. It’s not really the business of straight people to be telling us how to be queer, even if it’s because their LGBT friends feel that way.

  9. I think there’s a solution here. A person who politically agitates against equal rights for a minority group shouldn’t be employed in a Diversity role. But given her experience there are other capacities in which she can contribute to Gallaudet. She should be transferred into another area.

  10. Hmm…I guess I’m going to have the minority opinion here, which might make people angry. But the thing is that her anti-marriage equality stance may not affect how she does her job. Nothing she does at the diversity office affects whether LGBTQ people can get married. Her job is to make sure the campus is both diverse and a safe space for all students. And yes, her opinion about gay marriage could transfer to how she treats LGBTQ students. But what if it doesn’t? I grew up in a conservative community, and I know many people who wouldn’t vote for marriage equality but would not stop them from treating their LGBTQ colleagues and employees with kindness and respect. I know it sounds like a terrible contradiction, but there are people who can compartmentalize and not let their personal beliefs govern how they treat others professionally and personally. I don’t know, it just seems telling that many students felt that she was supportive of the LGBTQ community. Plus it is such a big stride to have a deaf Black woman in an important position at the university, and ignoring everything she’s done at Gallaudet seems like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    But yes I am conflicted. I would need to hear what she has to say before I really made up my mind about this.

    • I think that the main role of a diversity officer is to make minorities on campus feel safe and attract a diverse group of students, including LGBT students. Regardless of whether she can “compartmentalize”, because her political views are public – she signed a petition – and LGBT students and prospective students are now aware of her opinion, that compromises the university’s mission to help LGBT students feel safe and to attract LGBT students.

      Someone who actively lobbies against the rights of a minority group is not the most qualified person for a diversity officer position. I am entitled to my right to not like animals, but that doesn’t mean an animal rights nonprofit has to hire me. For many work positions, part of being qualified includes a passion for what you’re doing – at least the major parts of what you’re doing – and a personal belief in the “cause – at least the major parts of the cause. If the university believes LGBT students are an integral part of diversity, then LGBT issues are a major part of what a diversity officer “does”. There are people that DO live what they preach. And those people deserve the job.

  11. People throw around the term “free speech” with absolutely no clue what it actually means.

    She can’t go to jail for signing an anti-gay marriage petition. THAT is the protection afforded by the First Amendment. She CAN, however, be legally fired for doing so if it is in conflict with her job description.

  12. I don’t know. People who are against homosexuals getting married make no sense to me. Regardless of your religious beliefs you should not have control over someone else’s right to get married. If it is wrong in God’s eyes then let God take care of business.

    Gays getting married hurts no one, like say a rapist or murderer would. It offends people but hey, so does picking your nose in public.

    Blah blah blah, fire her ass.

  13. This is hands down the best news post I have ever read. I clicked the link because I read everything on here not having a clue what it was about, and at first I didn’t know what to think but this was the most unbiased exploratory piece. It was so well thought out and put together… I wish all news was given like this. No accusations, just an honest portrayal that admits it knows as much as it doesn’t know.

    Autostraddle… its articles like that that makes me check you all every morning while watching the news. You guys are epic.

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