The following is a guest commentary from Kent L. Brintnall. Brintnall, pictured right, is a faculty member in the Religious Studies Department and the Women’s & Gender Studies Program at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, where his scholarship and teaching focuses on religion, sexuality and popular culture. He was formerly a staff attorney at the federal court of appeals in San Francisco.
On Feb. 23, Charlotte Fire Department Chief Jon Hannan announced that Deputy Chief Jeff Dulin was being placed on administrative leave during an investigation of complaints against him. Hannan’s action was based in part on Dulin’s decision to post a derogatory, juvenile, transphobic, homophobic and misogynistic cartoon of Bruce Jenner on his personal Facebook page. While LGBTQ Charlotteans and their allies were quite understandably outraged by Dulin’s actions, they should not be heartened the Department’s. They should instead be worried about and critical of them.
In his memorandum explaining the Department’s actions, Chief Hannan wrote, “Please remember that you always represent the Charlotte Fire Department — whether you are on duty or not, whether you are in uniform or not. That includes being thoughtful about what you say on social media, in line at the grocery store, or on the sideline at the soccer field.” The City’s policy on social media states that employees’ personal use is an “extension of the workplace” and that they should exercise “sound judgment and discretion so as to not reflect adversely on the City.”
Even assuming this policy is constitutional, LGBTQ folk should denounce it. In our struggle for equality, we have insisted that our personal lives have no bearing on our fitness for professional tasks. We have also relied on speech acts — saying who we are, telling our stories — to change minds, transform hearts, shift perceptions. These acts of coming out — whether they be verbal pronouncements or holding hands in public — have frequently been denounced as “flaunting our sexuality,” as “inappropriate,” as “offensive.” In this instance and for this moment, we have a city manager and a fire department chief who are on our side. But do we want to put the fate of every LGBTQ police officer, fire fighter, sanitation worker, school teacher, hospital employee, and social service provider in the hands of public officials who can monitor their Instagram accounts, their overheard restaurant conversations, their comments at the local drag bar to determine whether they might reflect adversely on the City? As each of us knows all too well, our mere existence, according to some, is a stain on Charlotte. Do we want those same people to have policy and precedent giving them more opportunities to enact their prejudice? We fought too hard to show we could be good teachers, good cops, good civil servants to have it pulled out from under us.
Jeff Dulin’s Facebook post was outrageous and offensive. It reflected exceptionally poor judgment at a time when pundits, politicians and religious leaders are engaging in a campaign of misinformation and fear regarding trans* people to defeat a non-discrimination policy before Charlotte City Council. It was nothing short of obscene when, in 2015, almost one trans* person a week has been murdered in this country. Trans* activists and their supporters should have criticized Dulin loudly and strongly. (And Dulin has apologized for his actions.) At the same time, LGBTQ advocates and their allies should now insist that Dulin not suffer adverse professional consequences for actions taken outside the scope of his official duties. Until Dulin is found to have engaged in improper conduct on the job, he deserves — we deserve — to be protected from disciplinary action by his employer. LGBTQ folk should insist on this because we can’t control who will have the power to decide what counts as offensive, derogatory and outrageous.
A robust defense of speech is a key to any struggle for justice. Bad speech must be met with more speech. This means, of course, that those of us who can speak with less risk to our jobs, our families, and our bodies have greater responsibility to speak. (I say this to myself first.) But we should never derive satisfaction, even when we are being spoken against, from curtailing people’s ability to demean and derogate, because that double-edged sword can all too easily be used against us.