At first the story isn’t a shocking one – terrible and rage-inducing, but not shocking. A queer person is fired from their job for reasons that are never made entirely clear; since they were good at their job and nothing in the workplace had changed preceding the termination, the obvious answer seems to be homophobia. But of course there’s never going to be any way to prove that; without a secret document called Lesbians We Plan To Fire coming to light, there’s not much you can do. It’s possible to sue for discrimination, certainly, but you might end up pouring the rest of your savings into a losing court case, and then you’re unemployed AND broke.
At first, this is what Dawn Strobel’s story looks like. Strobel was fired from the Lake County High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area in Indiana, and she believes it was because she’s gay. She’s filed a lawsuit against HIDTA, the Drug Enforcement Agency, Crown Point and the state of Indiana for employment discrimination, although her former employer claims she was terminated because she was refused a security clearance (which is a legitimate reason for firing someone in a government or government-contracted position). This is a thing that happens. Probably, we think, there will be a small settlement out of court, or she will lose. Both these things are still possible, or maybe even probable.
The thing is, though, Dawn Strobel’s story isn’t just like every other one you’ve heard. It’s every bit as awful, but there’s also a horrible caveat:
“Dawn, we allege, became terminated because it became clear she was a lesbian, and others in the department didn’t like that …” said David Scher, Strobel’s Washington, D.C.-based attorney.
Scher said under federal laws, government employees who require security clearance can be fired if they are found to be hiding their homosexuality. In Strobel’s case, he said his office wants to defend her and create law in this area.
Did you know that? Do people know about that? It’s true that if any of your testimony in the process of getting a security clearance is found to be false, it’s grounds for termination. But Strobel maintains that she wasn’t denied a security clearance at all, and in fact still has it. And while it’s true that a certain amount of privacy is voluntarily surrendered when you take positions that require security clearances, the issue of sexual orientation is a tricky one. First and foremost, depending on your situation, disclosing your sexual orientation can actually put you in real danger; for the government to require it by threatening to withhold your job seems irresponsible at best. Furthermore, sexual orientation isn’t a black-and-white category like being married or being a citizen; “lying” about it is kind of a grey area. If you’re married to someone of the opposite sex but identify as bisexual, is that “lying?” Or more importantly, can it be construed so in the eyes of the government? Allowing the state to make rulings on your sexual identity seems like an extraordinarily slippery slope. It’s even more outrageous when you consider that, until very recently slash in a technical sense still happening right now, some government jobs like THE ENTIRE MILITARY in fact REQUIRE you to lie about your sexual orientation in order to have a job at all. How do you reconcile that? How does this make sense?
It’s unclear whether this defense is actually being leveled against Strobel; her former employer has made no comment as far as we know about why she allegedly failed to pass a security clearance. In any case, Strobel says that she was fired in 2009 after a period of sexual harassment (something that often accompanies homophobia at the workplace), and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued her a right to sue letter in 2010. This is terrible for her, because she has no job and not a lot she can do about it except hope this works/that someone listens to her/that she can find another one. It’s terrible for everyone else too, because if any part of her story is true (and it seems very possible that it is, based on the history of gay people in the job market) it means that the country we live in is crazy and weird and unhealthy for us to live in. How do we live like this? What do we do?