ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Gallaudet University’s chief diversity officer said her reputation was unfairly “tarnished” last week when the university placed her on paid administrative leave for signing a petition in July to place Maryland’s same-sex marriage law on the ballot in a voter referendum.
At a news conference outside the Maryland State Capitol Building in Annapolis, Angela McCaskill, who served as Gallaudet’s Associate Provost of Diversity and Inclusion, identified two out lesbian faculty members as the ones she claims persuaded Gallaudet President T. Alan Hurwitz to suspend her from her job.
She identified the faculty members as Martina “MJ” Bienvenu and Kendra Smith, saying the two are partners and wrote a joint letter to Hurwitz asking that she be reprimanded.
The Blade sent e-mails to Bienvenu and Smith seeking their version of what role they may have played in McCaskill’s suspension. The two responded late Wednesday with a one-sentence statement released by Gallaudet spokesperson Catherine Murphy.
“At this time, we would prefer this matter be a discussion between the University and Dr. Angela McCaskill,” the statement says.
“I was shocked, hurt, insulted. I was humiliated,” McCaskill said, adding that Hurwitz sought to punish her for merely exercising her private right as a Maryland resident to sign a petition to allow voters to make the final decision on whether the same-sex marriage law should be retained or overturned.
“They have attempted to intimidate me and tarnish my reputation,” she said.
McCaskill, speaking in sign language, delivered her comments through an interpreter.
She declined to disclose her position on same-sex marriage or whether she will vote for or against the marriage equality law in the Nov. 6 referendum.
McCaskill’s news conference came hours after the university released a statement saying it wants to talk to McCaskill about reaching an agreement that could lead to her reinstatement.
Her attorney, J. Wyndal Gordon, told the news conference McCaskill suffered damages by the university’s action and she would seek compensation for the damages. He declined to say whether McCaskill planned to file a lawsuit and seek monetary compensation.
“We will gladly meet with them,” he said of the university offer to discuss ways to reinstate McCaskill.
Gordon stated repeatedly that McCaskill remains neutral on the gay marriage ballot referendum. He said her decision to sign the petition to place the marriage question on the ballot was based on her strong belief that all controversial issues should be put before voters in Maryland.
“I fully support the members of the LGBT community as I support all groups across Gallaudet and its community,” McCaskill told the news conference.
“When I assumed my position we had an LGBTQA Resource Center that had been formed without funding,” she said. “It was simply an office. I relocated resources to provide support for the center because I believe that members of the LGBTQA community deserve more.”
McCaskill, 54, said she has worked at Gallaudet for 24 years. Her biography on the university website says she is the first deaf African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. from Gallaudet.
Tuesday’s news conference marked the first time McCaskill has spoken publicly about her suspension since the university community first learned about it on Oct. 10 through a statement released by Hurwitz.
“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,” Hurwitz said.
“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,” he said. “In the meantime an interim Chief Diversity Officer will be announced in the near future.”
Since making that announcement, Hurwitz has come under fire from both supporters and opponents of the Maryland marriage equality law. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a strong supporter of the same-sex marriage law, and Josh Levin, chair of Marylanders for Marriage Equality, the lead group campaigning to retain the same-sex marriage law, have called on Gallaudet to immediately reinstate McCaskill.
The anti-gay Family Research Council and the Maryland Marriage Alliance, two groups urging voters to overturn the marriage equality law in the November referendum, have cited McCaskill’s suspension as a predictor of what will happen if the law is upheld and takes effect in January.
“Homosexual activists continue to cry that individual and religious liberties are not at risk,” said Maryland Marriage Alliance Chair Derek McCoy in a statement released on Tuesday. “The suspension of Dr. McCaskill is proof of the disingenuous and untruthful nature of that argument.”
In a full-page ad published Tuesday in the Annapolis daily newspaper The Capital, Marylanders for Marriage Equality disputed McCoy’s assertion.
“Unfortunately, opponents of marriage equality are trying to make what happened to Dr. McCaskill about Question 6, the November ballot measure that will allow gay and lesbian couples to get a civil marriage license and protects religious freedom,” the ad states.
“But her suspension from a D.C. university has nothing to do with Question 6 in Maryland,” the ad says. “It does however have everything to do with being able to express one’s opinions, freely, and participate in the political process…Question 6 is about fairness and equality under the law, and it’s only fair Dr. McCaskill get her job back.”
McCaskill’s decision to sign the referendum petition was first reported by the blog Planet DeafQueer, which is widely read nationally in the LGBT deaf community.
The blog reported that an unidentified faculty member reportedly found McCaskill’s name on a database list of all signers of the petition that was released by the Maryland board of elections and published by the Washington Blade.
At Tuesday’s news conference in Annapolis, neither McCaskill nor Gordon, her attorney, identified Bienvenu or Smith as the faculty members who discovered McCaskill’s name on the database of petition signers.
But McCaskill told of how the two faculty members played a key role in what she described as a “tremendously horrific” two-week period in which her 24-year career at the university was shaken.
“This nightmare began two weeks ago on Wednesday, Oct. 3, when I was approached by a faculty member of Gallaudet University whose name is Martina Bienvenu,” McCaskill said.
“She asked if I had signed a petition to put the question of same-sex marriage on the ballot as a referendum,” McCaskill continued. “I responded that I had, that I did sign such a petition. In this very moment, she determined that the signature meant that I was anti-gay. No one has the right to decide what my signature meant,” she said. “Only I can do that.”
Added McCaskill, “MJ, Dr. Bienvenu and her partner, Kendra Smith, wrote a letter to the president of the university asking that I be reprimanded.”
Their biographies posted on the Gallaudet website state that both hold a Ph.D., with Bienvenu serving as a professor of “ASL and Deaf Studies” and Smith serving as an assistant professor of counseling. Both have been involved in academic-related projects involving LGBT deaf people, according to the biographies.
Planet DeafQueer reported in an Oct. 8 posting that LGBT students, who considered McCaskill a friend and ally in her role as chief diversity officer, were shocked when they learned she had signed a petition to place the marriage equality law on the ballot in a referendum.
The blog posting said LGBT students and faculty believed it was inappropriate for the school’s diversity officer to take such an action, which they viewed as an endorsement of the campaign to defeat the marriage equality law.
LGBT activists in Maryland have pointed out that the signature gathering effort to place the marriage equality law on the ballot was organized and carried out by people who oppose same-sex marriage.
But Gordon, McCaskill’s attorney, said at the news conference Tuesday that it would be incorrect to label McCaskill as being anti-gay or an opponent of gay marriage.
“Her signature on the same-sex marriage petition referendum that she signed in July 2012 merely represented her desire to, one, have this matter decided through the Maryland democratic process; two, allow Maryland citizens to become more informed on the issue through public discourse; and three, to enable Maryland citizens to cast their votes after thoroughly examining the issues and making an informed decision,” he said.
“Signing a petition to have same-sex marriage placed on the November ballot in Maryland’s general election no more interferes or compromises Dr. McCaskill’s integrity or qualifications as the Chief Diversity Officer than it would if she signed a petition to place affirmative action or any other controversial issue on the November ballot.”
Greg Nevins, an attorney with the gay litigation group Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, said an employer such as a university could establish restrictions on an employee’s public actions under certain circumstances.
“I would say people can vote the way they want to,” Nevins said. “But as far as putting yourself out in a public way, if it’s contrary to your job description – the things that you should be portraying and the employer’s position – they can take action against you.”