Sunday, June 8, 2008

Free speech comes with a price

I was forwarded an e-mail this week originated by a woman once employed at the University of Toledo who was seeking support for her effort to reclaim a job she says she was fired from for exercising her right of free speech.

Looking at her listed merits, Crystal Dixon appears to be a solid human resources professional, with 25 years in the field, who had proven herself as an asset to the UT HR department. She says she was fired for an opinion piece she wrote in response to a column in the Toledo Free Press by Michael Miller, the publication's editor in chief, which she had some interest. In Miller's column he talked about employment discrimination faced by gays and lesbians and compared discrimination against them to injustices done to blacks and people with disabilities.

First, let me say I firmly, unequivocally believe in every American's right to free speech and their right to disagree with others -- as I do with Dixon.

The foundation of Dixon's letter was the well-worn argument that gays and lesbians make a choice to live the lifestyle they live and people who are black have no choice, nor do any other people of color, nor do people with forms of physical disabilities. Now as someone who woke up black today, and who will wake up even blacker tomorrow -- because I spent a lot of time out in the blistering sun today -- I thought I understood where she was going. I don't think the struggles of blacks in this country are comparable. But when she continued to make her argument, I quickly got lost.

You can choose not to believe scientists who argue genetics are a marker of sexuality. Do believe this, I know of no one who is gay or lesbian who has ever said it was a choice they made. I believe them for the simple fact that we all want to be loved, in one way or another, and I doubt anyone would want to be estranged from their family, shunned by their friends and looked down upon by many members of our society by "deciding" to live as a homosexual. Unfortunately, many gays and lesbians face all of this and more (including risks to their physical safety) when they begin to express their sexuality openly. It's sad, wrong and not something people should have to go through. But they do, and I find it hard to believe there's some compelling reason in "living the lifestyle" that makes all the hardship worth it.

Dixon was the interim associate vice president for human resources with UT, she says, until university president Dr. Lloyd Jacobs canned her effective May 8. She had worked for the university and its pre-merger entity the Medical University of Ohio since January 2002. During that time she says she hired and recommended the promotion of gays and lesbians and treated everyone equally.

That was before she wrote an op-ed in which she said she is a Christian who believes "Jesus Christ loves the sinners but hates the sin." Dixon mentioned instances when people realized their sin and left the "lifestyle," repented and began living "normal" heterosexual lives. She also pointed to data that indicates the average gay (Avg. gay man earns $62,000) and lesbian (Avg. lesbian woman earns $52,000) individual does better economically than the typical black man (Avg. $30,000) -- although I'm not sure how exactly where a man who is gay and black fits into the picture.

I don't agree with any of the rhetoric and I can understand why she was fired. It's unfortunate that she isn't free to say what she wants on her own time and dime, but the reality is that she is an HR executive at a major, public employer who has an obligation to ensure diverse and inclusive practices and policies are the order of the day. I value her opinion and do respect her right to share it, however much I disagree. What I don't get though is how someone with more than two decades in the field can't see how wrong this is?

I suspect her termination was as much for not realizing the damage her comments could cause to the university's ability to hire the most talented and diverse candidates available. I'm not suggesting I know the school's workforce demographics or commitment to diversity, but do believe Dixon's op-ed won't help it become more representative of the community's LGBT population.

Dixon is now trying to raise funds for her legal defense, and she's getting some support. It'll be interesting to see how this turns out. I know I'll keep an eye on the story.

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