Legalized discrimination against LGBT people is dying, thanks in part to the efforts of
the federal government’s employment discrimination watchdog agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Well before the Supreme Court banned employment discrimination against LGBT people earlier this month, the EEOC had been prosecuting employers for discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace for years. In fact, the EEOC was a party to one of the three consolidated cases on which the Supreme Court ruled that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is a violation of a 1964 law that bans sex discrimination. It only took 56 years for our legal system to figure that out!
At the same time that EEOC celebrated this triumph, EEOC Chairwomen Janet Dhillon
released a strange Pride Month statement that almost seems to celebrate that days when gay
people kept their personal business to themselves in order to avoid ostracism and violence. Her
490-word “A Message from EEOC Chair Janet Dhillon on LGBT Month 2020” is mostly a
Pride-irrelevant pastoral about the influence of Americana on the comforting and majestic works of composer Aaron Copeland. LGBT issues only comes in at the end of statement when Dhillon notes that Copeland was obviously homosexual without ever openly identifying as gay.
Copeland’s biographer Howard Pollack notes that Copeland realized he was gay early in life and came to accept that. And the way he lived his life suggests that his acceptance of his sexuality meant an acceptance of the social limitations that came with it. He had a string of younger male lovers who were seen traveling with him, but he left little writing about his private life. He guarded his privacy as far as his homosexuality went. He was a politically conscious man who was 68 at the time of the Stonewall Riots, but he never came out and never supported the LGBT rights movement.
The lesson Dhillon wants us to take away from Copeland’s shadowed private life is that “it should be the option of every gay American.” She continues by stating: “Some in the LGBT community want to be openly gay and active in the LGBT movement. Others simply want to be what they are and live as they wish and love whom they love and not be mistreated because of it.”
Copeland’ story is not one of a Pride Month hero. He was a victim of homophobia,
living a life of half-secrecy that was designed to avoid confronting others and to keep himself safe from violence while maintaining some sense of personal integrity. Celebrating the choice of Aaron Copeland seem like nostalgia for a culture where discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was easier to perpetrate.
Dhillon’s statement also perpetuates the often-overlooked place of trans people in the
LGBT community. Gender identity is primarily about how we present ourselves to the world. It’s a cliché that every trans person is necessarily an activist because, unlike a homosexual, a transgender person cannot hide what makes them different. Their stigmatizing characteristics are all on the surface.
Dhillon’s reason for making such a bizarre statement is a mystery. She graduated first in her
class at UCLA Law School. She worked for years at Skadden, one of the country’s most prestigious
corporate law firms before becoming an in-house lawyer and high-level executive for major corporations
like U.S. Airways and Burlington Stores. It seems likely that her appointment was related to her husband,Uttam Dhillon’s position as Trump’s Acting Director of the Drug Enforcement Administration. It is hard to believe that her statement is simply a matter of incompetence.
While the EEOC’s mission might be limited to rooting out legalized discrimination only,
Dhillon’s nostalgia for a time when gay people kept silent about their identity encourages a
culture where discrimination is more likely to happen. Dhillon’s statement is insensitive to a
significant portion off the population her agency is charged with protecting.