I was gay-bashed by Jesse Helms

After years of inaction, the Senate has approved the Employment Nondiscrimination Act and LGBT workers anxiously wait for protections against bias in the workplace. I needed ENDA’s protections in 1994 when Republican Sen. Jesse Helms (N.C.) abused the power of his office to have me fired for “promoting the gay agenda” in the federal workplace.

I served as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's first Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual EEO Program manager (which program shamefully excluded transgender workers) and I consider my work “Early AG ENDA.” I worked to make USDA’s Washington workplace GLB-friendly.

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My activities quickly became broader than Washington. I received phone calls for help from USDA employees across the country including Forest Service employees in California who were out at their jobs and needed help with a discrimination complaint.

A meat inspector from Tennessee wanted to know if it was safe for him to come out in his workplace. I told him even with nondiscrimination policy on sexual orientation, some older USDA gay workers did not feel safe coming out and he would have to judge for himself if his workplace would be safe. Other federal LGBT employees also called me for help.

My USDA colleagues were mostly supportive of my work and I answered their questions about gay issues in the workplace. For a display case, I posted images of same-sex couples with children and explained cultural symbols such as lambda and the pink triangle.

I sought advice on my work from LGBT workplace expert Brian McNaught whose books I kept on my desk. We also corresponded and I have one of Brian’s 1995 letters framed for display in my office today.

As I expected, my work was not without controversy. Some, mostly older, USDA employees considered gay issues in the workplace a joke, just as they considered AIDS to be a laughing matter. It was safe then to laugh at discrimination against LGBT workers not only at USDA but, as I learned from others, virtually in every workplace. Sadly, it remains so today, without ENDA.

I spoke at a Washington area EEO conference, sponsored by Huntsville, Alabama-based Federal Personnel Management Institute, about USDA’s new workplace equality effort for GLB employees. FPMI reported the event in their newsletter. When Helms saw the article, a political crisis erupted.

In a vicious Senate speech, broadcast over CSPAN, Helms demanded Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy cease “recruiting homosexuals” for employment at USDA. He also demanded Espy cease “promoting the gay agenda.” The position description, prepared by unknowing bureaucrats, included such then-explosive language. (I never saw the CSPAN video. The position description is in the Congressional Record.)

The senator held hostage USDA’s annual appropriation, then around $60 billion, until he was satisfied the work was ended. Helms called USDA’s LGBT employees “a bunch of perverts.” This is preserved in the Congressional Record for July 19, 1994.

Over the next several days, I received late-night telephone death threats and vicious workplace remarks. My car was vandalized and nasty notes were left on my office desk. In despair, I came very close to suicide. In my suicide deliberation, I reasoned Helms would find my death a laughing matter and decided against it.

I must stress that all of these terror acts aimed at me, clearly results of Helms’ Senate gay bashing, happened in Washington, D.C., during the Clinton administration. I fear to think how LGBT workers in other “less tolerant” parts of our country are treated in ENDA’s absence.

Jesse Helms is now five years dead but workplace discrimination against LGBT employees is very much alive.  It is time to bury bias against LGBT workers, It is time for Congress to pass ENDA before more lives and careers are ruined and lost to violence and suicide.

Patterson is a San Francisco-based writer and speaker. His work has appeared in The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, In These Times, the San Francisco Examiner, the Washington Post and many other publications.