Gallaudet University’s chief diversity officer filed a $16 million discrimination and defamation lawsuit on Sept. 27 against the university and two out lesbian faculty members on grounds that they “tarnished” her professional reputation by implying she held anti-gay views.
The university’s president suspended Angela McCaskill from her job as Associate Provost of Diversity and Inclusion last October after news surfaced that she signed a petition to place Maryland’s same-sex marriage law on the November ballot in a voter referendum.
McCaskill, a Maryland resident, explained at the time that she signed the petition when it was circulated at her church. She said her intention was to allow Maryland voters to decide on the gay marriage question and that she had taken no public position on the controversial issue.
The 39-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia accuses Gallaudet faculty members Martina “MJ” Bienvenu and Kendra Smith of pressuring Gallaudet President T. Alan Hurwitz into violating the D.C. Human Rights act by illegally suspending McCaskill.
The lawsuit calls the suspension a form of retaliation against McCaskill for her decision to exercise her constitutional right to sign a petition on a pending civic matter.
A Gallaudet spokesperson told the Washington Post the university would have no comment on the lawsuit. Bienvenu and Smith couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. At the time of McCaskill’s suspension last October the two women told the Blade through an intermediary that they had no comment on the matter.
McCaskill’s lawsuit comes nine months after Gallaudet President Hurwitz reinstated McCaskill to her job in January. McCaskill states in her lawsuit that Hurwitz reinstated her to a slightly different position that represents a demotion.
“[O]n or about October 7-8, 2012, co-defendant, Bienvenu, and her same-sex partner, Smith, began making false and malicious statements that plaintiff was ‘anti-gay,’” the lawsuit says.
“[A]nd on those same dates, from the university campus, co-defendants, Bienvenu and Smith, falsely reported to PlanetDeafQueer.com, a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (‘LGBT’) publication, that plaintiff, Gallaudet University Chief Diversity Officer, was ‘anti-gay’ in an article entitled ‘Gallaudet’s Chief Diversity Officer Sign’s Anti-gay Petition,’” the lawsuit states.
It adds, “Co-defendant, Bienvenu, and her same-sex partner, Smith, further falsely stated, ‘[S]igning that petition is an act against many of Gallaudet’s constituents.’”
The lawsuit charges Gallaudet University and Bienvenu and Smith with one count of a D.C. Human Rights Act violation, two counts of defamation, two counts of intentional infliction of emotional distress, and one count of invasion of privacy.
The suit seeks $2.5 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages for the first count of a Human Rights Act violation and $1.5 million in compensatory and $1 million in punitive damages for each of the remaining counts. The total amount of damages sought by the lawsuit comes to $16 million.
The decision to suspend McCaskill came at a time when LGBT students at the school raised concerns about the appropriateness of McCaskill appearing to side with anti-gay groups that were pushing the ballot referendum while she served as chief diversity officer, a position thought to be a manifestation of the school’s support for equality for everyone, including gay people.
“The plaintiff explained that her signature on the petition solely represented her desire to have the same-sex marriage issue vetted through public discourse so that Maryland voters could become more understanding, informed, and enlightened about the issue once they entered the polls,” the lawsuit says.
“Plaintiff further explained that it was not an ‘anti-gay’ petition and plaintiff’s signature thereupon did not express an opinion on same-sex marriage one way or another,” it says.
According to the lawsuit, Bienvenu acted in a hostile way toward McCaskill after the two met last October at Bienvenu’s request to discuss revelations that McCaskill signed the marriage petition.
“…Co-defendant Bienvenu responded in a very animated manner with her sign-voice elevated, exclaiming, ‘I am really disgusted with you!” the lawsuit says. “She asked rhetorically, ‘Are you still a member of that church?’ and then criticized plaintiff’s Christian faith and belittled her religious beliefs,” the lawsuit says.
The Gallaudet website identifies Bienvenu as a professor of American Sign Language and Deaf Studies. It says she received a doctorate degree in linguistics in 2003 and served as co-chair of the Deaf Lesbians Festival from 2000 to 2004.
The website identifies Smith as chairperson of the Gallaudet Department of Counseling. She has a doctorate in Interdisciplinary Studies with a specialization in Counseling Education and Supervision. Among the areas she specializes in is “gay/lesbian/bisexual identity development and issues in counseling,” the website says.