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Gay, Lesbian NIH'ers Continue Struggle for Equality

By Josť Alvarado

Gay and lesbian Americans have made progress in gaining visibility and equal rights at private sector workplaces across the country. Companies like Walt Disney Co. have extended benefits similar or equal to those given to heterosexual employees. Many state and local governments have followed suit, after much organizing and struggle by gay and lesbian employees. And under President Clinton's policy towards the gay community, the situation in the federal government seems to have improved.

However, some gay employees at NIH say there are still unresolved social and economic issues creating adversity for them at the workplace and keeping them from fully reaping the fruits of almost 30 years of struggle for equal rights. These issues came to the fore during the recent "Noons in June" seminar series conducted on campus.

Many gay and lesbian NIH'ers agree that since the arrival of the Clinton administration and the appointment of Dr. Harold Varmus as NIH director, their situation has improved. For the first time, the NIH Office of Equal Opportunity recognized June as Gay and Lesbian Awareness Month, a national commemoration of the June 27, 1969, protests in New York City that marked the beginning of the gay liberation movement.

"This new designation is in keeping with HHS Secretary Donna Shalala's Dec. 6, 1993, EEO policy statement that includes the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation," said OEO Director Naomi Churchill in a memo announcing the event.

When President Clinton entered office in 1993, he moved to protect the rights of gays and lesbians in government by promising to strike down a ban on gays in the military and enforcing the equal treatment provisions of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 in all government agencies. Then-new HHS Secretary Shalala promptly revised the department's nondiscrimination policy to include sexual orientation.

In the last few years, gay organizations for federal employees such as Gay and Lesbian Employees' Forum (GLEF) and Federal GLOBE (Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual Employees), have grown in a climate of greater tolerance in the federal workplace, says Richard Clark, president of GLEF at NIH. This has made coming out for many gay workers, if not easier, at least more of an option, he said.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who is gay and an advocate of gay issues, says the situation for gays in the federal sector has improved in the past 5 years. "I think it has gotten much better under the Clinton administration. For the first time in the past 5 years, many people felt free to be open, although it can be hard to prove. But my experience -- with the President appointing people who are openly gay and the support that we have received -- has been that discrimination has dropped. The rule has been that gay and lesbian people have not been discriminated against in the past few years."

Getting out of the closet

According to Clark, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has been a decisive factor for many gays and lesbians in their choice to "come out of the closet" at work. "That's really important because if you go around trying to hide this one area of your life in a workplace where you are spending 8 or 9 hours a day, it's going to be awfully difficult to maintain that without having your relationship with the people around you suffer," said the statistical assistant from NHLBI's Cardiology Branch. "Your work is going to suffer and your mental health and emotional health are going to suffer. And to just be out and comfortable is a major thing."

Richard Clark

Clark believes the key to changing people's negative stereotypes of homosexuality is for them to know gay people up close, particularly in the workplace. "I have discovered that some people can be very homophobic until somebody close to them says, 'I am gay.' It is amazing sometimes how fast their attitudes will change. And they realize, 'Wait, this isn't the evil demon that everybody says they are. This is my son, my daughter, my sister, my brother, the friend that I have known for years.'

"I think that just having the whole issue open and public makes most gay and lesbian employees feel a lot more secure, a lot more able to be open about who they are, and has helped other employees to realize that a person's sexual orientation has nothing to do with how well a person performs their job," observed Clark.

Bias still

But there are divergent opinions on how far this tolerance and understanding have actually gone in federal agencies like NIH. Acceptance of gays and lesbians has varied widely from office to office, and reactions, either from supervisory employees or coworkers, have not been uniform. Even Clark, who has not experienced rejection himself, admits that, for many, the process of coming out can be difficult.

"Sometimes you are in a no-win situation because if you don't tell people and they find out, it's like, 'How can you keep this from us?' But, if you happen to mention it, you are bragging, you are flaunting sexuality. So sometimes you just can't win," he said.

A number of gays and lesbians feel there is still much to be done to attain satisfactory gay-straight relationships in the workplace, and assert that prejudice is too often evident. A subtle form of discrimination against gay employees, who notice a double standard in how they are treated, persists, said sources at the Noons in June workshops. Some gays claim that federal officials in charge of enforcing equal rights for minority employees have yet to take the gay struggle seriously.

Frank himself recognizes the need for permanent statutory protection of gay and lesbian rights in the federal workplace against future modifications in policy as a result of a change in administration. He is sponsor of a bill pending in Congress, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, providing basic protection to ensure fairness in the workplace for gay and lesbian Americans who are currently denied equal protection under the law. The bill was brought to the Senate floor as an amendment to the Defense of Marriage Act, where it lost by one vote. It hasn't been introduced in the House of Representatives, where it is opposed by the Republican leadership.

A case in point

One person who believes he has experienced bias in the past is a former manager within the Office of the Director. Unfortunately, events in his personal life several years ago began to affect his work life; he had to be absent from his job for extended periods of time to care for a friend who was dying. Inevitably, he shared his distress with his supervisors and colleagues and admitted along the way that he was gay. Within 2 weeks of coming out and without any clear explanation, the individual says he was dismissed from his management position and passed over for promotion. He quickly filed an EEO complaint and it was resolved. However, this did not solve all his problems; he sincerely believes his sexual orientation and/or the fact that he filed a suit has prevented him from being selected for various NIH positions for which he has applied over the years.

Still a member of OD, he now heads an office that handles policy and addresses technical issues and concerns. While this is not a "management" position, he is convinced he holds a worthwhile, important job. Furthermore, positive attitude changes have been apparent in his work environment over the last year, and his supervisor and higher ups are setting the path for change.

The core issue occupying the gay community at NIH and other federal agencies these days is a lack of clear laws and regulations mandating the same rights for gay partnerships, including medical and family leave rights, as for straight married couples.

The NIH'er mentioned above has chosen to do his part for equal treatment through participation as an NIH representative to Federal GLOBE, which works to ensure fair treatment of homosexual employees. Federal GLOBE is beginning to make its presence felt in HHS and NIH, which lack any domestic partnership benefits. Advocates for such benefits say that they are rooted in the egalitarian principle that equal work warrants equal pay, including employment benefits, which can amount to 25 percent of total compensation.

A double standard

Gary Morin, a sign language interpreter at NIH, explained how unequal treatment in employment benefits can be unjust to gays. "I can get health benefits for a member of the opposite sex I just met yesterday and married this morning. But I can't get that for a partner with whom I have been living for 5, 10 or 15 years. That's clearly a double standard. That's being treated differently as a class -- no matter how monogamous and long-term the relationship is. It may be true that in many gay couples, both partners work, and both may have access to benefits. But the fact is we don't have the option."

Gary Morin

Morin also pointed out that even though "upper management" at NIH follows through on administrative policy to ensure there is no discrimination, he feels there is a "middle management" who "don't want to hear about the issue of sexual orientation; they actively avoid it." He cited as an example the June 25 workshop on gay issues in the workplace, for which GLEF extended invitations to supervisors. GLEF sources say none -- save some OEO managers -- attended.

Ultimately, the fight to keep gay issues on the front burner will depend on the willingness of closeted gay and lesbian employees to come out and join organizations like GLEF and Federal GLOBE, which still attract only a fraction of the gay community, according to Morin. "Until they come out, there are not going to be the visible numbers to make our issues a priority, and there is going to be a backlash." Among all of the minorities on campus, Morin concludes, "We are the ones who still have the furthest to go in terms of legal rights."

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