Monday, February 18, 2008

Can being "out" as GLBT create a "conflict of interest"? Part I

Sometimes people have said to me that I seem to be intentionally bringing “discrimination” upon myself, by refusing to work in certain scenarios where I believe I am not welcome because of homosexuality. In their view, if I want self-respect, I should fight for myself by deliberately taking on those fights and challenging notions of glass ceilings. This does sound like a fictitious Dr. Phil program confrontation to me.

In fact, there have been a couple of situations where my activities could indeed provide a concern about “conflict of interest.”

In early 1990, I started working, as an individual contributor programmer-analyst, for a life insurance company that in the DC area that specialized in selling to military officers. There were other businesses, like salary deduction, which is what I spent most time on, and in the beginning I didn’t think much of it. Then from mid 1990 to early 1991 we had the Persian Gulf War, containing Saddam Hussein (I can resist quoting the name, “one who confronts”). Then in 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton started suggesting lifting the ban on gays in the military. In May 1992 Keith Meinhold “came out” on national television, leading to a legal battle against the “old policy” that he would ultimately “win.” In September 1992, former midshipman Joseph Steffan’s moving book “Honor Bound” was published, and I bought a copy and met him at Lambda Rising in Washington. (Review. I worked behind the scenes on this issue in 1993. In July 1993 President Clinton announced his “honorable compromise” on the issue, and the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy was formally codified into law on Nov. 30, 1993. In Februrary 1994, the Pentagon issued an administrative interpretation of the policy that seemed to allow covert gay servicemembers to “have a life.” I had already published two letters in “The Washington Times” in 1993 urging that moderate approach. But very quickly it became apparent that some commands were conducting witch-hunts, and SLDN went to work with huge load of cases.

By the later summer of 1994, I had decided that I would write a book, linking what I thought had caused my “William and Mary expulsion” (the “forced intimacy” of dormitory living) with the rationale used to justify “don’t ask don’t tell” in the military (forced intimacy, the lack of “privacy” – the concern of Sam Nunn and Charles Moskos then, and “unit cohesion,” along with the legal doctrine of “deference to the military” apparently supported by Article I of the Constitution). I was becoming active with GLIL, getting commentaries published in print in it, as well as in a newspaper in Colorado, “Ground Zero News.”

In September 1994, the company I worked for agreed to be bought by a larger company in Minneapolis. Although employees often dread mergers, I welcomed this one. Libertarian, free-market capitalism would rescue me from a potentially serious conflict of interest.

Why? There are a couple of reasons. It’s true, that access to sensitive information about military personnel was possible there. I had stated in public an aim to become involved with changing the policy and lifting the military ban. Conceivably, there could have been customer information (like HIV related) available at work. No, I never looked, and I never misused it, but the mere availability of the information raises the issue of potentially “proving a negative.” Since this was still the middle 1990s, there was not yet the concern for consumer privacy that is now so well known and controversial today with issues of Internet safety and companies’ protecting their clients’ personal information. (In those days, employees took work home and thought nothing of the security implications of doing so.) Then there was the cultural issue. Management at work was never hostile in any way to homosexuals. However, customers sometimes visited the facility in uniform. I was not comfortable with the idea of remaining there forever, even without my public involvement with the issue. At one time, in early 1990, a comment had been made in a training class that this cohort of customers presented a better risk because of a lower incidence of HIV. (That may not be completely true.) Moreover, there was simply my own personal background. I actually did serve in the military in 1968-1970 without incident, but was “sheltered” and kept stateside because of my graduate degrees in Mathematics. There is a basic question of moral fairness with this that I have taken up elsewhere. But the kind of customer we had could probably regard me as a “coward” or the kind of person who had to be protected when as a young male I should have been doing the protecting. I simply did not want to stay in the situation.

I sometimes discussed this on AOL message boards in 1996 (those were the predecessors to today’s blogs and social networking sites, but even then I wondered if I risked something discussing this in “public”), even before my first book would come out in 1997. I got a mixed response. There was sometimes a tone recalling those left-wing days of the early 1970s when “working for the enemy” was a middle-class crime against the “people.” Those boards have disappeared long since.

In May 1996 I discussed this with one of the attorneys representing one of the major serivcemembers challenging the ban, having been put in touch with him and his law firm by LLDEF. I asked him if he thought his could represent a legal conflict of interest. He indeed did. But it’s hard to say if this is purely a legal feeling, or more a political one, having to do with remote ideas of solidarity. One observation that came from my discussion with him is that the "military gay ban" issue (before and after "don't ask don't tell") tends to connect itself to many other social issues invoking personal identity within a group, and therefore can be expected to have unpredictable effects on or "unintended consequences for" civilians. But that extension reminds me of how things used to be, before "Stonewall": because gays were perceived as having a character deficiency, they were excluded not just from the military (and actually they often weren't), but from civil service jobs as well, especially those requiring security clearances. That was the "legacy" I had come of age with an lay in the background of my story.

I finally discussed this with the company, particularly in December 1996, six months before the book would appear. I recall a snowy weekend in “almost heaven” West Virginia thinking about how this meeting would go. Eventually, after the book was published in July 1997, I applied for and got a transfer to Minneapolis, the parent company away from apparent connection to this “fraternal” line of business. We went through the formal corporate job application procedure, so there was never a “formal” agreement over the conflict of interest. There was a well known understanding, however, that the political issue had a lot to do with the move. But so did conditions in the company, as the operation in the DC area might be downsized some day, as a natural elimination of redundancies that happens after mergers. Before I relocated, I visited the Greenbrier Resort fallout shelter (in W Va) in August, 1997, a bit of an irony considering what I had written a book about (going back to the Cold War and the draft, when the attitude toward gays had been utilitarian – actually, the military had stopped “asking” in 1965 but started again in 1981). I was actually an exciting time for me.

In 1999, there was a family emergency back in the DC area. Certain persons wanted to pressure me to move back. I would not. This could have become a very serious matter, for me to keep to what I felt I had promised. Fortunately, the matter was settled without my moving back, although there were some scary moments and problems the details of which I can’t really disclose yet. I also discussed the conflict of interest issue with management again in 1999. At the time, the agreement was similar to what one sees in blogging policies today (I have another posting on that here. This included not mentioning publicly (including online) where I worked, which I still see many people do today (even outside of resume sites).

I had seen an earlier version of the “conflict of interest” problem. I worked for a credit reporting company in the 1980s in Dallas. Although not commonly done in practice, credit bureaus could do “investigative consumer reports” on applicants, an issue that I thought was becoming increasingly sensitive because of the AIDS epidemic that had erupted in the early 1980s among gay men. In 1987, there had been rumors in the gay community that another credit reporting company that had rumored to investigate the life insurance claims of a Delta plane crash in Dallas in 1985 would buy our company. I felt it was a good idea to get out of the business, and came back to the East Coast in 1988. It seemed in the Dallas area that never-married men were seen as insurance risks for employers (although only one company asked me about it during interviews).

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