Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Are Lesbians and Gay Men a Minority?

by Fred Fejes, PhD
Professor, School of Communication and Multimedia Studies
Florida Atlantic University
© 2008 Fred Fejes
 
According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a national gay-rights advocacy organization,   approximately  570  colleges and universities have  explicit policies  protecting lesbian  and gay students, staff and faculty from discrimination on the basis  of   sexuality.  A smaller but growing  number of schools  have policies granting  partner benefits to lesbian and gay staff  and also  recognizing gender identity as a protected class.  Not only private  institutions  and universities in the liberal areas of  the  North  and the West Coast  have such policies.  Red state public institutions  such as the University of Mississippi. the University  of Alabama, Auburn University, Texas A&M, the University of Nebraska and the University of South Carolina have   non-discrimination policies. The changes in  official attitudes  on lesbian and gay men on many campuses are impressive. Less than fifty years   ago at many  universities, faculty even suspected of being   homosexual were typically given the choice of  either   resigning  or immediate dismissal.

Such changes reflect not only  the growing visibility of lesbian and gay students, staff and faculty, but the  importance   now placed   on diversity on college campuses. In the increasingly complex and globalized  21st century society,  educational leaders   recognize that diversity, rather than a burdensome problem,  is  something to foster and sustain.  But while  diversity in general is clear and valued goal,  the  status of lesbians and gay men on campus   often remains clouded.
Whether lesbians and gay men fall under the broad umbrella of  diversity is often  contested.  

Current diversity efforts are the successors to  affirmative action   and other  programs undertaken by many   institutions.  Often in response to court  orders,  these programs were meant to  correct  decades old discrimination in  student admission and faculty and administrative hiring.  Such corrective efforts, and the laws behind them,  were outcomes  of what political sociologist John Skrentny has  called   The Minority Rights Revolution (Harvard University Press, 2002)   or that period  the 1950s -1970s when America confronted  its shameful  treatment of marginalized groups.   The  civil rights movement of that era  transformed American political culture by  creating a new and  powerful national narrative about minority group, identity,  oppression and struggle in the United States.

While the 1964 Civil Rights Act, outlawed discrimination on the basis of  “race, color, religion, sex, (and) national origin”   and theoretically covered all American citizens,  its implementation  focused on those groups  that lawmakers  and policymakers saw as particularly  victimized by discrimination.   In addition to African-Americans,  women, Americans of Hispanic and Asian ancestry  Native-Americans and, later,  the physically disabled were seen as conspicuous victims of discrimination.     Using   what Skrentny terms  the “black analogy,”  government policymakers, the media  and   the public in general placed these designated groups within the larger narrative  of minority group oppression  and victimhood  that,  “while unspoken, undebated  and unlegislated, nevertheless powerfully shaped policy.” 

Like these other groups,  lesbians and gay men met the  requirements of a minority group deserving protection from discrimination. They were subject to  discriminatory local, state and federal laws and policies. Earlier than other minority groups,   pioneer homosexual rights activists felt a strong kinship with the  growing civil rights movement and  were  the first group to copy their tactics of peaceful protest.  By the   mid 1970s  there was a  growing recognition  that lesbians and gay men were  a minority.
 
Much in the same way  that science stripped theories of  racial inferiority of their legitimacy,    medical  and scientific authorities  rejected earlier  theories pathologizing homosexuals. Similar to laws on segregation,  laws  restricting the rights of  homosexuals were now viewed as outmoded and unjust  and states   moved to repeal them.  Cities and counties across the country banned discrimination at the local level and  a number of states  moved to passing similar  laws.  Federal legislation was  introduced in Congress. Jimmy Carter, elected  President in 1976 on a platform of human rights, promised  attention to the concerns of America’s lesbian and gay  community. Soon after his inauguration  gay rights leaders were invited to the White House  to  discuss their issues.

However, for lesbians  and gay men, all of this progress came  to a sudden halt in the spring of 1977. Led by entertainer Anita Bryant,  local religious and conservatives  in Miami-Dade County Florida   mounted a  vigorous campaign to repeal a  county gay rights law. The successful effort attracted national and even internal attention.  The  theories and images of homosexuality as a sickness and perversion, now joined with condemnation by  religious conservatives,  still had a very  powerful hold on the public imagination. Similar successful campaigns the following year  in St. Paul Minnesota, Wichita, Kansas and Eugene Oregon  harbingered a national movement.  National political figures previously  supportive of gay rights  quickly distanced themselves.  The media treated  gay activists’ claims to minority status with increasing skepticism  Even lesbian and gay leaders themselves  recognized the futility of  casting their claims in the narrative of minority rights.
If lesbians and gay men were no  longer  viewed as a minority deserving  of protection against discrimination, what was their status in American society?  Was the progress on gay rights to be replaced by an era  of  Jim-Crow style legislation aimed at lesbians and gay men.  It seemed so. States from Alabama to New Jersey began recriminalizing homosexuality and considering  legislation to  restrict further the civil rights of lesbians and gay men. 

The showdown came in California in the  1978 elections.  Conservative activists, hoping to incite another Miami-style campaign,    placed a  measure on the  ballot  banning lesbians and gay men from teaching in public schools.  Early polls  showed that more than  60% of California voters supported  the ban. Gay activists feared  the referendum was only the beginning of a larger effort  to restrict  them  from other areas of public employment and state regulated professions.  However the  measure’s proponents  had overreached; they wrote their proposal so broadly that even heterosexual teachers  favoring  gay rights  could be  fired. Gay activists  opposing the measure  were joined not only by liberal and union leaders, but also   by noted conservatives such as Ronald Reagan  who saw it  as a serious attack on the rights of all California  citizens.  The measure lost by  more than  a million votes 
Since  1978  the question of the legal status of lesbian  and gay  men and their rights has been fought  in a cultural trench warfare between gay activists and conservative political and religious activists. Still  the  visibility, prominence  and vitality of the lesbian and  gay community have  grown. Lesbians and gay men  are regarded as important segments of many communities. In  the area of business and commerce, not only are they viewed as a significant  and growing market, many major corporations hoping to attract them as valuable employees offer  the recognition,  protections and benefits that the state is typically unwilling to grant. According to the HRC  433   of the Fortune 500 companies explicitly  ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, including not only companies like Microsoft and General Motors, but  also Wal-mart and Winn-Dixie. In higher education, an institution’s  recognition and support of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered faculty, staff and students is a  mark of its commitment to diversity and  quality.  All   62 members of the prestigious  Association of American Universities (AAU) have non-discrimination policies and more than  two thirds provide partner benefits.
 
According to the HRC   approximately  570  colleges and universities have  explicit policies  protecting lesbian  and gay students, staff and faculty from discrimination on the basis  of   sexuality.  A smaller but growing  number of schools  have policies granting  partner benefits to lesbian and gay staff  and also  recognizing gender identity as a protected class.  Not only private  institutions  and universities in the liberal areas of  the  North  and the West Coast  have such policies.  Red state public institutions  such as the University of Mississippi. the University  of Alabama, Auburn University, Texas A&M, the University of Nebraska and the University of South Carolina have   non-discrimination policies. All   62 members of the prestigious  Association of American Universities (AAU) including the University of Florida have non-discrimination policies and more than  two thirds provide partner benefits.  The changes in  official attitudes  on lesbian and gay men on many campuses are impressive. Less than fifty years   ago at many  universities, faculty even suspected of being   homosexual were typically given the choice of  either   resigning  or immediate dismissal.
 
Still, although  570 colleges and universities have explicit polices addressing   their lesbian and gay concerns, and these include the University of Miami, Florida International University, Nova University, Broward, Miami-Dade ad Palm Beach Colleges,  the other approximately 3,700  higher education institutions  in America do not.   Among those institutions is  Florida Atlantic University.  One can only read   these  institutions’  lack of minimal protections as  a  disregard for its lesbian and gay faculty,  staff and students.  Unfortunately not only  lesbians  and gay men, but the institution itself    pays the costs.
 
It costs the institution top faculty, administrative and staff. Most institutions compete nationally for top talent. For  lesbian and gay employees,   the issue of protections and benefits are important and  can  either attract them   or send them away.  For example, in 2006   Robert W. Carpick, a leading researcher in nanotechnology left the University of Wisconsin for the University of Pennsylvania.  In 2003  he had married his partner of ten years in Canada, however the University was unable to offer him partner benefits due to  a  state measure banning gay marriages. The revenue  from research contracts  he took with him to Pennsylvania dwarfed  the estimated cost of the benefits.

It costs the institution in  students.    For many lesbian and gay youth in America, “coming out” or   acknowledging  one’s sexuality is  a high school experience and many high schools  provide  them a  safe and supportive environment. In considering  colleges, these students  look to see if  they  are  openly  welcomed  at a university and if their  concerns and safety  as openly lesbian and gay students are taken seriously.   Publications like The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students and websites like  www.campusclimateindex.org  rank various colleges and universities on their   policies and supportive campus environment. Lesbian and gay students  listen very carefully to what an institution says, and does not say, about people like them.

It cost the institution donor support. Many lesbian and gay baby boomers who remembered the gay rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s are now organizing their estates.  These  alumni also  look very closely at what their  universities says and do  not say about  people like them.  After the death of gay activist  Phil Zwickler from AIDS in 1991  his family set up a foundation to commemorate his work. Part of the foundation’s effort is funding a  program of research fellowships at Cornel University. Richard Weiland, one of the first employees at Microsoft who died in 2006,  made a $60 million bequest to Stanford University. A significant portion of that was designated to support the University’s Lesbian and Gay Resource Center.
It costs  a university  any claims of  quality. As noted above,  a proactive stance on  diversity, including sexuality diversity,  is a mark of  a top echelon university.    Thus it  is hard to take  an institution’s clams  to excellence and diversity seriously  when all it can  offer  its lesbian and gay faculty, administrators, staff and students are   generic assertions  about “not discriminating against anybody.”  This is little  more than an academic  version of  a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Finally it costs the institution any claim of community leadership.  As Richard Florida  noted in his  research on the “creative class,”  a distinguishing feature of  communities in the forefront of  technological and biological  research and innovation  is an open  and  welcoming attitude towards diversity, including sexual diversity.  What message is  sent   about a community   when an institution devoted to  an  open and unfettered search for knowledge, and in many cases a community’s major employer, carefully hedges  its position on  issues of sexuality  and its own  lesbian, and gay faculty, staff and students.

In  the strictly technical  sense, lesbians and  gay men are not a minority, or at least no federal law has yet defined them as such.  However they are a vital,  visible part of the life of many  colleges  and  universities. Those institutions that recognize and welcome them benefit  from their talents and energies.  Moreover these  institutions send out a real message about their commitment to diversity and  quality. These universities are the leaders in higher education.  Hopefully their model will be followed  by those institutions that seek  to move forward. 
 

Fred Fejes, PhD
Professor, School of Communication and Multimedia Studies
Florida Atlantic University
777 Glades Road
Boca Raton FL 33431
office: 561-297-3858
cell:  954-465-3262
fax 561 297-2615

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