Deaf university roiled by gay marriage controversy

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By Ben Nuckols
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — Gallaudet University is under fire from both proponents and opponents of gay marriage after placing an administrator on leave for signing a petition to put Maryland’s gay-marriage law on the ballot.

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EYE OF THE STORM—Angela McCaskill, chief diversity officer at Gallaudet University, using sign language and speaking through an interpreter, addresses a news conference on Oct. 16, in Annapolis, Md., about being put on leave from her job after signing a petition to put Maryland’s same-sex marriage law on the ballot for voters to decide. She is asking to be reinstated to her position. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

They say that regardless of Angela McCaskill’s personal opinion on the matter, the chief diversity officer at the nation’s leading university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students shouldn’t be punished for exercising her First Amendment rights.

And yet, at a university that is home to a prominent contingent of gay and lesbian students who feel embraced by their peers, professors and administrators, there’s genuine concern that McCaskill has alienated a large portion of the student body and may not be the best person for the job.

McCaskill was the first deaf Black woman to earn a Ph.D. from the university, which is 11 percent Black.

On Thursday, the mere mention of her name on the school’s stately Northeast Washington campus was enough to set off a spirited debate between two fraternity brothers, who signed passionately as their friends cast glances back and forth.

“What she did is unacceptable. It hurts the gay community,” 18-year-old sophomore Andrew Duncan, who is straight, said through an American Sign Language interpreter. “It’s a very open-minded college, and we need to welcome everybody.”

Duncan said Gallaudet is a haven for all deaf people, regardless of their sexual orientation.

“It’s a small community. We welcome those who are part of us. If we’re already small and we reject somebody, then we’re just going to get smaller,” he said. “We experience oppression already. Coming to Gallaudet is like an escape from that oppression.”

Although Gallaudet does not track how many of its 1,600 students identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, students said Gallaudet is a friendly place for LGBT people. Many of the gay students come out while at Gallaudet, said Amanda Biskupiak, 24, a theater major who is a lesbian.

“I feel very accepted. I feel very open, confident on the campus,” Biskupiak said through an interpreter. “Here, holding hands with a girl is perfectly OK.”

Some believe that because their deafness already sets them apart, it’s easier for gay deaf people to be open about their sexuality.

“I have several gay professors that are out, that have been out. I know tons of students who are out, and it’s no big deal,” said Joel Colon, a hearing Gallaudet student who is gay. “Because the deaf community is just a naturally open community, because they are a minority themselves … they don’t have as many barriers to expressing their sexuality as the majority of hearing people, I would say.”

McCaskill has said she is not anti-gay, although she declined to reveal how she would vote when Maryland’s gay-marriage law goes before voters next month. McCaskill, who is black, signed the petition at her church after listening to a sermon about marriage. African-American churches have been a focal point of the effort to repeal gay marriage in Maryland, although there are also black ministers who support the law.

Gov. Martin O’Malley signed gay marriage into law in March, but it was put on hold in part because a referendum was anticipated. The vote is expected to be close, and Maryland is one of four Democratic-leaning states where voters will decide on Nov. 6 whether same-sex marriage should be legal.

O’Malley, a Democrat, has said McCaskill should be reinstated, as has the pro-gay-marriage group Marylanders for Marriage Equality. They say that whatever McCaskill’s personal opinion is on the issue, she should be allowed to exercise her rights as a citizen and sign a petition.

The conservative Family Research Council has been highly critical of Gallaudet, saying the university has a narrow definition of diversity because it apparently does not tolerate diverse views on the gay-marriage issue.

Established in 1864 by an act of Congress, Gallaudet remains the nation’s only liberal-arts university with programs designed specifically for the deaf.

Gallaudet students are known for their activism to protect deaf culture. In 1988, landmark protests led to the installation of the university’s first deaf president, I. King Jordan. But in 2006, Jordan himself was the subject of protests after he appointed unpopular university provost Jane K. Fernandes as his successor. One of the complaints about Fernandes was that because she didn’t learn American Sign Language until graduate school, she wasn’t “deaf enough” to lead the school. Her appointment was ultimately rescinded.

“History speaks for itself; the Gallaudet community has a penchant for stirring the pot whenever we catch a whiff of controversy,” columnist Colin Whited wrote in the student newspaper, the Buff and Blue. He compared the McCaskill situation to the Fernandes protests and criticized the administration for not being more forthcoming about its plans.

President T. Alan Hurwitz, who was traveling Thursday and unavailable for comment, said in a statement Tuesday that university leaders want to work with McCaskill to enable her to return. But McCaskill said at a news conference Tuesday that she considered herself fired.

“I’m dismayed that Gallaudet University is still a university of intolerance, a university that manages by intimidation, a university that allows bullying among faculty, staff and students,” she said.

As chief diversity officer, McCaskill’s role is to foster a supportive learning environment for all students, regardless of race, sexual orientation or other differences. Before the petition controversy, McCaskill was well-liked in the LGBT community and was instrumental in setting up an LGBT resource center, students said.

Alumni are tracking the news closely, alumni association president Alyce Slator Reynolds said.

“A large number of people from both sides are upset,” Reynolds wrote in an email.

Some Gallaudet students are uncomfortable with homosexuality, although they appear to be in the minority. Michai Hanley, a 20-year-old psychology major who wore a T-shirt reading “Jesus (heart) Me,” said through an interpreter that many of her fellow students may not understand McCaskill’s religious beliefs.

Some students said that while Gallaudet is progressive about sexuality, it still has unresolved issues relating to race. McCaskill was the first deaf Black woman to earn a Ph.D. from the university, which is 11 percent Black.

“Gallaudet needs to accept the accountability that they did not provide a safe place for Angela, especially as a deaf woman of color,” Derrick Behm, 21, chief of staff to the student body government, wrote in an email.

Others just hope the situation will blow over.

“My belief is that she’s not against homosexuality,” Robert Ballengee, 36, a senior social work major, said through an interpreter. “She’s a very sweet woman; she’s an awesome woman. I don’t know why it’s becoming such a big deal.”

(Follow Ben Nuckols at http://twitter.com/APBenNuckols.)

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