“I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.” This line from Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” always held a special meaning for me beyond its literal application in the story. Far too often in our society, we assume that all members have the capacity to speak up for themselves, and when a group cannot or does not, its members escape our attention completely.
Recently, Drexel University’s Steinbright Career Development Center partnered with OUT for Work to provide a job database for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students. While ostensibly a step toward promoting equality, I can’t help but feel that it is actually detrimental to LGBTQ integration into society. Sure, it’s good for people who wear their sexual orientation on their sleeve or who do not wish to support a company that doesn’t support LGBTQ equality, but how about everyone else? Like people who are not comfortable sharing their orientation with their boss and colleagues? Or people who want to work for companies who (due to a lack of legislative leadership) simply haven’t bothered to protect LGBTQ workers?
It may surprise heterosexual readers to learn that not every person who recognizes, accepts and acts on their same-sex attractions feels the need to identify as part of the LGBTQ community. Some choose to avoid it because of the social and political implications (activist and left-leaning) that it represents, while others simply do not believe that their sexuality is that integral to their personality. Is it shocking to think that a male construction worker who is attracted to other men may not want to wear a rainbow-colored helmet to work? Or that a transgender woman may not feel comfortable telling her colleagues about her journey to understand herself?
How are the rights of these people protected when they don’t want to be out at work? Or do we simply ignore them because they forfeited their rights when they rejected the values conflated with the LGBTQ community? While it may look great on paper for Drexel to embrace OUT for Work, what is it doing for the community? It’s promoting a “separate but equal” mindset for both job seekers and employers, a mindset that was firmly discredited nearly 60 years ago by the Supreme Court. It tells students that they either can be LGBTQ or can work for the employer they’ve always dreamed of, but not both. It tells students that to earn equal protections, they need to make their sexuality a defining part of themselves.
So what’s the alternative? The alternative is making employment anti-discrimination laws a priority across Pennsylvania and across this nation. As a private institution of prestige and merit, Drexel University has the authority to encourage legislation that it deems valuable. With opinion polls showing an average of 65 percent public approval statewide, Drexel would serve its students (and the denizens of Pennsylvania) far better by encouraging the Pennsylvania legislature to pass a robust employment anti-discrimination law, something that cities and counties across the commonwealth have already done. Standing up for equal employment opportunity in Pennsylvania takes more than lip service to the LGBTQ community; it requires leadership and legislation.
The SCDC, for its own part, has taken great strides to help students where it can. OUT for Work provides much more than a database. It furnishes the SCDC staff with valuable training to help them address the needs of their LGBTQ student population and also provides students with a number of LGBTQ-specific resources in their job searches. However, it also encourages the use of one’s sexuality as a hiring advantage. Official press releases about the OUT for Work campaign mention that being gay can be a “big plus” in the hiring process. While the OUT for Work database is not to be used in place of the standard SCDC job search database, the University seems to presume that some causal relationship will exist between LGBTQ students using it and then finding employers who are more interested in hiring them. Forgive me if I don’t aspire to be a diversity hire or if I don’t think that my sexual and gender orientations should be written on my resume.
The LGBTQ movement is dominated by people who aren’t afraid to stand up for who they are and what they want. They are the trailblazers who demanded recognition in the ‘60s and have given us so much more since. But like the Lorax’s trees, there are countless people with same-sex attractions or transgender identities who are not comfortable or able to wear the rainbow flag. Their rights are no less valuable, and their experiences no less valid. While it may be easier to focus on helping those who help themselves, our nation’s promise of equal treatment under the law requires us to protect all people regardless of sexual and gender orientation. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” To ignore the needs of those who are uncomfortable asking for help is to deny them the rights we claim to support.
I speak for the men who like men, the women who like women, and anyone whose gender isn’t something they feel like sharing with the world. I speak for them because they may not be able to speak for themselves, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a say.
Richard Furstein is the distribution manager at The Triangle. He can be contacted at [email protected].