It doesn’t escape me, the interesting fact of this article publishing the month AFTER June – Pride month. Originally designated to commemorate and memorialize the Stonewall Riots, June’s Pride celebrations have taken on a much more festive and profound/pronounced manner, in the spirit that only the LGBTQ community has. Of course, pride isn’t just about who and how you love, but really it’s pride in who you are and how you want the world to know it. I may be a straight and white, but I feel a strong sense of closeness to anyone/everyone who puts themselves out into the ether, open and ready.
Sometimes, however, love doesn’t clash as well with other subjects, like labor. Discrimination runs rampant in many communities, including and especially the gay community. Should sexual orientation be safe for workers to express? Of course it should be, but implementation and execution, not to mention the interpretation of law, have been tricky and icky.
Thankfully, people like David Baldwin are able and willing to put themselves on the line and open up to the world. His landmark discrimination case, Baldwin v Dept. of Transportation, was ruled favorably, in that sexual orientation is covered and protected by Title VII. He fought City Hall (so to speak) and won.
What follows is a series of questions I emailed him and answers he provided that illuminate and enlighten us on the case itself, as well as on himself and what all of this means in the grand scheme of things:
Bill: I want to open things up by talking about something light for a moment. Your love of dogs is absolutely wonderful and bright, as described in an article for Gay Star News. I see a correlation between your fight for what’s right and your affection for man’s best friend. In both, all you’re asking for, ultimately, is respect and empathy. Why is it more difficult for people to respect other humans but so easy for us to fall head over heels for our pets?
David: Prejudice and hatred are learned behaviors often based in irrational fear and misunderstanding. For example, in relation to pets, we are often confronted with isolated images of Pitbulls being vicious dogs when in fact most are docile and friendly pets. This leads to a perception that all Pitbulls are bad, when in fact they aren’t. The same paradigm applies to members of the LGBT community. Homophobia is often rooted in absurd cherry picked conservative religious beliefs that are taught by parents and clergy while ignoring most of the other “rules” that apply to their own lives. Just as with dogs, bad behaviors and prejudices can be unlearned and attitudes can be changed. It starts one conversation at a time and the effects are cumulative. Case in point, my very Conservative Republican neighbors in New Orleans who originated from Latvia. We get along famously although we don’t agree on much politically. We have celebrated events in our lives and consoled each other in grief, and through it all we became the very fabric of mutual understanding and respect that we all strive for in New Orleans. I have a weekend house in Pensacola and when the property came up for sale next to mine I told my Latvian neighbors about it and they promptly bought it! We are now dual neighbors and plan events together. This family is depicted in a cherished video https://youtu.be/sZaYYO-pg_4 with me on the embedded Facebook link in the Gay Star News article. It’s paramount that we as members of the LGBT community reach out to others outside of our community if we ever hope to be respected and understood. It’s a way of life for me now. Lastly, it’s vital for each of to see each other as individuals, not as blue or red members of opposing political views. On December 10, 1994, the night of my 37th Birthday, I held my partner Chad in a 5th floor room in Baptist Hospital on Napoleon Ave as he took his last breath and died of complications from AIDS. My very Conservative Republican coworkers and employees embraced me with love and carried me through the darkest moment of my existence. Everyone that wasn’t on duty at FAA MSY that day drove with me to Napoleonville, LA and stood shoulder to shoulder with me as I said goodbye to my partner in a small Catholic Church. No member of the LGBT community ever deserves to be discriminated against but when we take the time to see each other as individuals and not labels, progress will and can be made to undo some of the undeserved damage placed on our community.
Bill: How did this suit against the Department of Transportation begin?
David: I moved around a great deal in my FAA career seeking new challenges and higher pay. I was recruited by the MIA Air Traffic Manager to return to MIA as a Front Line Manager overseeing operations in the radar room and control tower. During this period, the MIA ATM retired and a new individual took over. I immediately sensed a dramatic shift in attitude fromthe senior management towards me. I knew from past experience what it was all about, homophobia pure and simple. When my probationary period as a MIA FLM was over, someone dramatically less qualified was selected to take my job, and so it began, GAME ON!
Bill: Knowing that reprisals from employers happen all the time, be it by intimidation or literal threats, were you at all prepared for the potential fallout from coming forward, either by past bosses or when applying for future positions elsewhere? In other words, how did you find the strength and resolve to make this happen?
David: I grew up in a very broken, blue collar family outside of Richmond, VA with an alcoholic Dad. My childhood was very challenging as a young gay boy, but it also made me very tough. You learned to fight or you got your ass whipped. I always had a job at that age and even earned my private pilot’s license at a county airport without my parents’ knowledge because no one was paying any attention to me. I graduated high school living on my own then immediately joined the Navy and trained as an air traffic controller. I was on sea duty the entire time and traveled the world aboard two aircraft carriers, USS Ranger and USS Nimitz. I left the Navy at 23 and was truly on my own. If I had food to eat or a place to live it was because I earned it, and I embraced that reality. The ATC strike came about in August of 1981 just after I left the Navy and I was immediately hired at ORF, Norfolk, VA, the city of my last Navy assignment. I was young, bras, and I let it be known from day one in my new FAA job that I was Gay, but I was also friendly and engaging enough to get away with it. An opportunity arose for me to transfer to New Orleans, and I JUMPED at it and arrived at New Orleans MSY in May of 1982 in a $400 Pontiac full of excitement and enthusiasm. I made a name for myself and worked tirelessly to be the absolute best at every challenge presented to me, simply because I had nothing or anyone else to turn to. My hero became the person in the mirror who would see “me” through everything because there was no plan B and failure was not an option. Anyone who challenged me quickly discovered I was the wrong Queer to pick a fight with because I don’t back down from fights and actually enjoy them way more than I probably should. I quickly rose into the supervisor ranks in the FAA and I established myself as a tough but fair boss. I encountered hostility and homophobia throughout my career but each situation made me even more determined than ever to stand my ground. I learned my job ice cold and used it as a weapon against anyone that came after me. When you’re really good at your job it’s hard for someone to come after you and in the rarified ego driven world of ATC you can reduce an oppressor to rubble by professional humiliation simply by being way better at what you do than they are. Most bullies aren’t expecting you to come after them and when you do most run and cower. Most importantly, be professional in all that you do and don’t give someone ammunition to use against you.
Lastly, confronting death and tragedy in a professional environment hardens you in a way that is hard to verbalize. I have been directly involved or observed far too many people die and the fragility and significance of every life comes into sharp focus when you do. Case in point, on July 9th, 1982 I issued the en-route clearance to Pan AM flight 759 from the clearance delivery position in MSY Tower. I then observed the B727 taxi out and begin takeoff roll on runway 10 into weather that the flight was warned about. The aircraft went down in a thunderstorm and killed 154 people including 8 on the ground as all of us in the tower watched. In that moment, everything about the meaning of life changed for me, and how I approached it. Your life can end in an instant, so make the most of every moment and never look back.
Bill: “Congress may not have envisioned the application of Title VII to these situations.” What does this mean to you? Do you feel optimistic about greater change at the legislative level?
David: I have less enthusiasm for political solutions in the current congress just because of the makeup of the current house and senate. If this November brings about a sea-change of blue maybe there is hope but currently I feel our best shot is in the courts as with my EEOC ruling. In 1964 LGBT civil rights wasn’t on the back burner of any stove, in fact we weren’t even in the kitchen so I understand simply because of where our society was when VII was enacted. Society has evolved to where this is a relevant issue. You cannot improve the past but only learn lessons from it so why dwell there? The only thing that is truly relevant is now.
Bill: You won the suit not just in terms of the interpretation of Title VII, but also settled out of court. What was the first thing you did when all was said and done and how did it feel?
David: Validation in life comes in wrapped in strange packages. On July 15th, 2015 at 8 pm, I had just finished swimming laps at New Orleans Athletic Club and was in a towel in the locker room looking at my Iphone when I saw an email from the EEOC. Mind you, I had filed suit in 2012, and each year had my attorney write a letter asking for an update only to get a form letter back. Now here it was, and there I was, naked and afraid to open this email like it was a Christmas present that unexpectedly arrived from a long ago ex. I quickly got dressed and went to the NOAC library to face whatever was in that email. I opened it and there it was, “For the reasons that follow, the Commission REVERSES and REMANDS the agency’s decision” and continued on for 17 pages. As a layman in the legal world I truly didn’t grasp the enormity of the decision and my attorney was in Germany on vacation with his family. It was only in the coming days that I truly began to understand the impact of this decision on myself and the lives of countless others. My name was redacted in the original release and I called the EEOC the very next day and asked that my name be made public You can’t make a difference in this world living in the shadows and I wanted my name on this document because I went thru hell and back to achieve this victory. Upon discussing this with my attorney and realizing that I was entitled to civil action against the Federal Government I was faced with a very difficult decision in my personal life. I had firm plans underway to reopen the closed Club Bathhouse in a new location outside of the French Quarter, had lined up partners, joined the North American Bathhouse Association, and had found a location in the Bywater to do so. Now, all of my cash that I had saved up for the business would have to go towards the legal precedent setting civil case if I wanted to make a difference. I was truly faced with my own “Vulcan Moment” in that the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the one so I gave up the business and pressed on with the civil suit. It became the first case ever accepted by the Justice Department by a Gay man on the basis of title VII. In that moment, I felt all of the effort had been worth it but it troubled me that I was unable to generate much interest in the case. I was paying all of my legal fees out of my personal savings and despite sending impassioned letters to every media source I could think of there was virtually no interest in this case. In the heady days leading up to the Nov 2016 election it seemed assured that Hillary would win and there would Unicorns in the street and Rainbows filling the sky, and my EEOC case was of little interest to anyone. The election came and then another epic decision presented itself, pursue the case further or accept a potential settlement in my favor. I wanted to go to trial and had taken a home equity line out on my house to do so. Everything seemed in my favor. Kathleen Williams, District Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, an Obama appointee was assigned the case, the FAA had virtually no defense of the facts at hand, and I wanted to kick butt bad. It was not to be. In the coming days I received numerous calls from prominent LGBT Civil Rights attorneys pleading with me to settle the case due to the hostile incoming administration. Although a loss seemed improbable, leaving any opening to undo the original decision was to big a gamble to take. At a hearing in Las Vegas in December of 2016 with the Justice Department, I told my attorney to accept a settlement in my favor and also accepted the minimum cash settlement offered for one very important reason. This was never about money, and all about principal, and I covered the rest of the legal costs out of pocket and did so gladly.
Bill: Have you received any feedback from people, positive or negative, about the case? If so, what do you think of it all?
David: I have received mostly positive feedback about the case and I am deeply humbled and proud to represent the LGBT community in this decision. In March of 2016, I was invited by LeGal, the LGBT Bar Association of New York to be a surprise guest speaker at their annual awards reception honoring Chai Feldblum, who gave a moving presentation on of the highlights of her career, my case! As she finished, I was invited on stage to surprise her and I was given an open mic and allowed to tell my life’s story. Personal validation flowed through my veins like beer on a Hot Mardi Gras! It felt great to be alive and I was immensely proud to be among the leaders of the LGBT legal world. My beloved attorney Lowell Kuvin from Miami flew up to New York to be with me and my partner Keith. It was a truly remarkable experience but was quite literally the calm before the storm. I knew something was up with my health and in the coming weeks I was diagnosed with life threatening malignant oral cancer. I had three major surgeries in the year that followed, all while I was pursuing my civil case. Life was a challenge on a daily basis but here I am now cancer free.
Bill: President Trump wants to “combine” labor with education into one department. Is this harmful for the LGBTQ community? For all communities? If so, how can labor overcome?
David: This is a blatant attempt to minimize the power and significance of both agencies as they have entirely different roles. It would be like combining the SWB with Entergy. The end result would be one confusing mess with very unclear roles and responsibilities. It would be death by de Minimis for LGBT and other minority legal issues as the legal apparatus would lack the “legal machinery” to move forward. It’s a desperate attempt by a desperate individual to take power away from those he is sworn to serve not enslave. For labor to survive, non-violent resistance and protest is the best vehicle forward. It keeps the issues relevant and keeps people aware of what’s happening around and to them.
Bill: The fight of labor and civil rights is an ongoing one. What do you think are the next hurdles to beat and what can be done about them, in New Orleans and beyond?
David: The first and foremost issue is to encourage everyone to register and VOTE. We have all seen the consequences of not doing so and our lives and our future truly depend on EVERYONE showing up and making your voice be heard at the ballot box. The November elections will determine a great deal about how this country goes forward in the coming years. The political madness enveloping this country is not sustainable and only a hard course correction can save us from the bad decisions being made as we speak. Get informed and get involved, everyone’s vote counts. On a local level, I am very proud of Mayor Cantrell for forming an LGBT task force and seeking to make life better here for all of us. Every vision begins with a single image in someone’s mind and you are never too old to make a difference. I was 57 years old when I won a landmark EEOC decision and 58 when I settled in my favor a civil suit against the Justice Department. I’m sixty years young, and have been living by myself for almost two years now but I’m ready to pick up this fight and carry this torch forward. In closing, I am reminded of the lyrics of one of my favorite songs by Calvin Harris, “Let’s Go” They truly strike a chord with me because the only place you make a difference in life is RIGHT NOW!