Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Firefighters, Free Speech and Pride


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

When I first heard the story that four San Diego firefighters were taking the city to court over having been forced to drive their fire engine in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Parade July 21, I thought this was just another tempest in a teapot being stirred up by the radical Right. After all, their case was being handled by a self-proclaimed “Christian nonprofit public-interest law firm” whose mission includes protecting “time-honored family values” — language often used as code for opposition to any effort to protect the rights or even the lives of Queer people. What’s more, they were being promoted by talk-show host Roger Hedgecock, who has built most of his popularity bashing liberals, immigrants and Queers.

Then I downloaded the affidavits submitted by the four men involved — Captain John Ghiotto, Engineer Jason Hewitt and Firefighters Chad Allison and Alex Kane — and my attitude towards their case did a 180-degree turnaround. As I read their affidavits, it became crystal-clear that a great wrong had been done these people and they deserve whatever financial settlement and policy changes they can get from the courts. I was even more shocked when I read public statements from representatives of the San Diego Fire Department saying that, indeed, these men were ordered to participate in a parade aimed at promoting an agenda with which at least three of them profoundly disagreed — and, what’s more, this was standard city policy aimed at showing Fire Department support for community organizations.

According to the affidavits, these firefighters — all of whom work Engine 5 out of the Hillcrest fire station — were ordered to be in the parade and threatened with long-term damage to their careers, including sacrifice of any hope of future promotion, if they did not. Once in the parade, they were subjected to sexually explicit words and gestures. When they passed the Christian protesters who regularly picket the parade — and are routinely stationed in a cul-de-sac next to the fire station where these men report for work — they were told they were going to hell for supporting the Queer community agenda, which was especially heartbreaking for the two of them who are themselves Christians.

The suit against the city specifies two kinds of damages done to these men. First, it claims that by placing them in a sexually charged environment in which people would be making remarks to them like, “Show me your hose,” “You can put out my fire,” “Give me mouth to mouth,” and “Fuck you, fireman” — accompanied by crotch-grabbing and other gestures conveying essentially the same message, the city violated its policy against sexual harassment. In addition to banning sexually explicit words, gestures or overtures between employees, which is what most people think “sexual harassment” means, San Diego’s policy also bans placing employees in sexually charged situations in which they will feel uncomfortable — and that’s what the firefighters and their legal representatives are charging.

Second, and I think more significant, the firefighters are charging that the city ordered them to become silent spokespersons for a cause they do not support and thereby violated their First Amendment rights. I couldn’t agree more. Fire Department spokesperson Maurice Luque portrayed the Pride Parade as if it were just another community event in which his department was asked to participate. It is not. One of the complaining firefighters, Engineer Jason Hewitt, described it in his affidavit as “a parade that isn’t like other parades” — and he’s right. It has an overarching political message — its theme this year was “United for Equality” — and it’s designed to promote the idea that Queer (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) people should have full legal and social equality with straight people, including equal access to civil marriage.

Pride organizers even successfully used the political nature of their event in 1994, when Roger Hedgecock and one of his regular listeners attempted to organize a “Normal People’s contingent” to march in the parade “in opposition to the homosexual agenda.” The court that heard their case declared that Pride had a First Amendment right to exclude a group openly opposed to the political and social message their event was intended to convey. Just like the Boy Scouts of America, which claims to be a “religious organization” when they want to exclude Queers and atheists from membership and a nonpolitical, nonsectarian “community organization” when they want virtually free access to large chunks of public property, certain people in our community seem to want to have it both ways: to preserve Pride’s ability to take a stand for Queer equality and exclude participants who oppose it, while allowing the city to force people who don’t believe in that message to participate against their will.

I certainly believe in the message of Pride, and when I participated in this year’s parade I did so with full awareness of its message and in support of it. Ghiotto, Hewitt, Allison and Kane did not. Hewitt said being in the parade “compromise(d) what I hold true and what I believe in, my reputation, my character, my integrity, my morals, and my religion.” Kane said that when he had to ride past the anti-Queer Christian group that was protesting the parade -— and they, wrongly but naturally assuming that he was participating of his own free will, taunted him “on how we were bad people for supporting this, this really struck deep because I am a Christian.”

The most heart-rending story in the affidavit’s is Allison’s. He did not describe himself as a Christian and he specifically said that he disagreed with the anti-Queer protesters. Indeed, he has a Gay uncle “who has been active in my upbringing and still plays an important role in my life.” While waiting for the parade to start, Allison spotted his uncle’s partner and their roommate in the crowd and gave them hugs — and other people in the audience spotted him doing so and assumed it was open season for hugs from a firefighter. After being barraged with sexual words and gestures throughout the parade, Allison said, “I was upset not only with the people that were treating me in such an unwanted, derogatory manner, but also with the people who had forced me into this situation.”

I’m not especially upset with the audience members who threw sexual gestures and catcalls at the firefighters in the Pride Parade. After all, like everyone else involved in the parade they no doubt assumed that the firefighters had volunteered to be there, and were either Queer themselves or Queer-friendly enough to take the sexual banter and horseplay in the light, fun spirit intended. But I am upset — and I think the firefighters of Hillcrest Engine 5 have every reason to be upset — at a city and a command structure that put them in that position and, while they’ve volunteered to make cosmetic changes in their policies, refuse to admit that they did anything wrong to these men.

Fire Department spokesperson Maurice Luque told me, “It’s part of a firefighter’s job to participate in community events.” This is outrageous. A firefighter’s job is to respond to fire alarms and put out fires, period. The idea that a public employee can be ordered, on pain of being disciplined, to participate in a public event communicating a message in which that employee does not believe smacks of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Saddam’s Iraq, Kim’s North Korea and other regimes in which dictators regularly order their people to turn out in mass numbers to adulate them — or else.

It is utterly offensive that something like this could happen in a country that is supposed to be built on democracy and political freedom, and where the same First Amendment that protects me, the Pride organizers and anyone else who participates in political speech also protects John Ghiotto, Jason Hewitt, Chad Allison and Alex Kane from having their names, their bodies and their professional standing enlisted in a cause in which they do not believe. One can readily imagine how the Queer community would howl if this had happened the other way around — if Queer firefighters had been ordered to participate in a “Christian Day Parade” that had, as one of its demands, “preserving traditional marriage.” That would be wrong — and it’s equally wrong the way it did happen. True pride means carrying our own banners — not relying on the government to force others to carry them for us.