October 17, 2012 at 9:42 am EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Gallaudet official blasts school, hints at lawsuit
Angela McCaskill, Wyndal Gordon, Maryland marriage petition, same sex marriage, gay marriage, Gallaudet University, Washington Blade, gay news

Gallaudet University chief diversity officer Angela McCaskill this week denounced a decision by the school to put her on leave after she signed an anti-gay petition in Maryland. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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.”

Governor Martin O'Malley, Maryland, gay news, Washington Blade

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has called for the reinstatement of Gallaudet University official Angela McCaskill. (Washington Blade file photo by Pete Exis)

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.

Aisha Braveboy, Maryland marriage petition, gay marriage, same sex marriage, gay news, Washington Blade

Maryland State Rep. Aisha Braveboy also spoke at the press conference. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“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.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

  • This is an outrage. Yes, this woman has a constitutional right to sign a petition, but she does not have a constitutional right to be a chief diversity officer. If the purpose of the roll is to make all students feel welcome in the school, including LGBT students, she has disqualified for the job. If I am a narcotics officer, I have a right to go out and campaign for legalizing illegal drugs. I just should not expect to have a job in the morning. Her actions will utterly destroy any outreach among LGBT students the school may want to achieve. Moreover, if a gay man signed a petition to take away the rights of black people to get married, he’d be run out of town on a rail!!!

  • Dr. McCaskill has to learn, that once in a position of responsibility, she is in the community’s eye. What ever she does, whether it is in her public or private life, is a reflection of her and her position in the community. Her signing the petition is protected, but by signing, her capability of being able to do her job as Gallaudet University’s chief diversity officer is suspect. Diversity is just that, diverse lifestyles, races cultures are to be respected. By signing the petition, she revealed that her views were not in compliance with what is expected of the as a diversity officer.
    Gallaudet University is a private institution, and has absolute control over the hiring and firing of it’s employees.

  • Seriously, she is the CHIEF diversity officer. She should have gotten fired or at the very minimum demoted. Not off WITH pay! What a VERY sad message she sent.

  • Seriously, she is the CHIEF diversity officer. She should have gotten fired or at the very minimum demoted. Not off WITH pay! What a VERY sad message she sent.

  • Signing that petition does mean you are anti-gay. Sorry, but that is exactly what it means. And as such, you are unfit to serve as chief diversity officer because you are not for diversity if you are opposed to gay rights and inclusion.

  • I think the University should be looking for a new Chief Diversity Officer. Her actions are out of line with the golas of the position. She should move on & let someone who is committed to the LGBTQ community & other minorities fill her position.

  • Angela, PUH-LEEZ! Cvilized and just societies do not put the rights of minorities up for popular vote, and a CDO should be fully aware of this principle and avoid violating it in appearance, word, or deed.

  • Angela… you knew it already. suggest you to accept to transfer to other position. if you won't then you're in trouble. clear up your mind now. thanks!

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