New analysis by Ryan Gierach, West Hollywood, California
This has been an instructive week for all people who stand against institutional discrimination, racist language, racism and homophobia, but especially so for those in West Hollywood who watch such things.
Last night, after a week of roiling over a commencement speaker, the City College Board of Directors decided to complete its 360 pivot on the issue of West Hollywood/London resident Dustin Lance Black.
Yes, first they invited him, then they disinvited him and then they invited him again.
But who was watching this juicy story while anyone in range of a Los Angeles-area media publication was glued to the Donald Sterling fiasco as it played out?
Newsies among you surely saw the debacle that was the GOP’s warm support of Cliven Bundy shrivel like a penis in cold water after racist statement he made. And made again. And again.
Here we have two stories that show us one thing: bigotry has become sophisticated beyond any conscious attempts to change it. You see, bigots and racists are very much like criminals. No sheriff will claim that they catch the really smart criminals; the clever ones plan and cover up and actually get away with crimes more often than law enforcement would like to admit.
It’s the stupid criminals they catch. And with racists and homophobes, too often it is only the stupid ones we catch on to and can create dialogue over.
Racism as practiced by hundreds of American corporations that closed factories in inner cities as blacks began to replace whites is sophisticated – whom do you hold to account, exactly? How?
It has become apparent that bigotry, both against blacks in the Sterling and Bundy cases and against gays like Mr. Black, is taken to task only when it is expressed crudely. When it is elegant, unseen, it is seldom, if ever, pinned down as such.
Pasadena City College could have elegantly avoided appearances of discomfort with homosexuals by inviting Mr. Black in the first place. After all, the West Hollywood resident won his Oscar for writing the screenplay about the life of San Francisco’s Harvey Milk, the first elected openly-gay politician in America and played a major role in beating back Prop 8.
But the college crossed the line between elegant and crude with the disinvitation.
Administrators panicked upon finding out about intimate photos of Mr. Black posted online by an angry and mean-spirited ex-boyfriend to harm Mr. Black’s reputation, Board President Anthony Fellow intervened and disinvited him.
Why? The college had a brush with scandal in September after revelations that a professor was having sex with students.
PCC President Mark W. Rocha, Deputy Supt. Robert Bell and Pasadena Area Community College Board of Trustees President Anthony Fellow were loath to give the institution another potential (and self-inflicted) black eye, so they pulled the invitation with regrets… “it just didn’t seem like the right time for Mr. Black to be the speaker,” Board President Anthony Fellow said.
The college’s efforts to avoid a black eye ironically bit them in the butt, if we could mix a couple meaningful metaphors.
The board issued an invitation to Dr. Eric Walsh, Pasadena’s director of public health to be Mr. Black’s replacement.
It sounded as though the college had tapped a well-known civic leader of the gray variety, someone who could reliably counted on to inform the students on the splendors and rigors of adulthood from the establishment’s position – always a good move in trustees’ eyes.
The new commencement speaker had some serious bona fides; the board apparently saw his web site anointing him a humanitarian, championing maternal and child health issues, violence prevention and holding a strong commitment to the “highest level of care for individuals infected with HIV.”
The page also includes laudatory remarks about his posts and awards – “Dr. Walsh is the immediate past President of the California Academy of Preventive Medicine…
What could possibly go wrong?
Pasadena City College had not banked on observers’ strict scrutiny of the doctor. Nor did they consider how quickly the crudeness of bigotry can surface in this day of videos and Internet.
This week, just a few weeks later and only two weeks before the graduation ceremony, college administrators heard from concerned students and the press that Dr. Walsh is a practicing Seventh Day Adventist minister, in fact one well-respected and much-sought after as a speaker by that faith.
If you see the storm clouds brewing, yes, there’s a tempest on the way.
It turns out that Dr. Walsh’s sermons, which deal with the usual sorts of topics of earnest interest to Seventh Day Adventists, can be found in plenty on YouTube.
They include beliefs that are varied but somewhat off-putting, if it’s to be said delicately, such as:
• The distribution of condoms to a public in need leads to higher AIDS rates;
• The devil set up Catholicism;
• The prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam, was influenced by Satan;
• Acceptance of homosexuals is a satanic ploy to destroy America;
• Single mothers are ruining their children;
• Disney movies, which are loaded with violence, sex and magic, are a satanic ploy to split up families;
• Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is a “satanic belief”;
Jumping off that list to this pair of eyes is this public health official’s declaration that providing condoms to the public leads to higher HIV infection rates. That position would disqualify him from his post in all of America’s bigger cities – and should have if the question came up in his interview with Pasadena.
His moral judgments of single mothers and his apparent willingness to blame the victim bodes ill for those women and every other constituency that fails to uphold the Adventists’ standards in his policy decisions, i.e., homosexuals, transgenders and a laundry list of others.
Observers stood incredulous at Board President Anthony Fellow’s decision; had he really disinvited a speaker who espoused a modernity and tolerance craved by youths embarking on their adult lives and invited one who wishes to turn back society’s clock to 1875 or so?
The administrators would not back down. City governments hate looking bad, especially when they bring it upon themselves, so City Manager Michael Beck maintained that Walsh’s sermons and his professional life should be separate.
“The City is aware that Dr. Walsh has shared some of his personal opinions and religious beliefs with others outside of his City employment in connection with his church activities,” Beck said. “Dr. Walsh, however, continues to demonstrate a professional work ethos independent of his personal opinions that could otherwise influence the context of his role at the city.”
The debate about his speech on campus turned quickly away from the insult to Mr. Black and focused on Dr. Walsh’s callous, even malevolent views.
Even to administrators Pasadena City College suddenly looked like evil, cruel and malevolent overseers of an institution more
on par with the 1950s and the pinko commie fag scares.
The school looked down into the abyss, seemingly unable to make the correct move.
But then, on Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Walsh stepped in by discovering a “unforeseen scheduling conflict” in his calendar that would prevent his accepting the speaker’s slot at the commencement.
It was fewer than 24 hours later that the board voted overwhelmingly to invite Mr. Black to speak at his alma mater’s graduation ceremony. The college says the Board of Trustees and PCC President Mark Rocha were merely vetting their short list of candidates when the original invitation “mistakenly” went out to Mr. Black.
PCC spokeswoman Valerie Wardlaw said the school has already reached out to Mr. Black’s representatives to re-invite him to deliver the commencement speech, but would retain seven other candidates on the speaker short list just in case Mr. Black declines.
At last night’s meeting, Mr. Rocha read a statement intended for Mr. Black and the LGBT community. Part of it read, “[Mr. Black] has distinguished himself as a film producer and a champion of equal rights and protections for all regardless of sexual orientation.
“The Board of Trustees and college administration deeply respect Mr. Black, his work and his causes. The Board also sincerely apologizes to Mr. Black for any actions that may have caused hurt.”
The very latest news on this comes from the LA Times’ Robin Abcarian, who wrote this morning that “Trustee Ross Selvidge was more forthcoming about the debacle. ‘This was an enormously embarrassing episode for the school,’ he said.
“Let’s not fool ourselves, It’s too late to get anybody else, and I don’t want to go through this another time,” said Mr. Selvidge.
Mr. Black told Truthdig.com, “students from Pasadena City College and reporters starting to send me email exchanges that they had with Dr. Walsh. There’s a professor who’s sort of the film guy there who’s at the head of the board—Anthony Fellow—I’ve been receiving a lot of letters, correspondence between students and administrators and Dr. Fellow, and, you know, it is blatantly homophobic.”
It became apparent, he said, that the college’s administration was not only bucking the wishes of the students because of their own anti-gay agenda, but that they invited Dr. Walsh in order to put an exclamation point on it.
He told his interviewer, “I felt badly, I thought, well, they didn’t ask for this, and what is it that they must be feeling right now? And I’m sort of surprised that they haven’t reached out or said anything, and now it’s starting to make sense, because there are these speeches online of his—“evolutionists are Satanists”—and there’s a speech online where he makes fun of trans people. Then all of a sudden—and this is not a speaker who was approved by the committee that approves speakers—he was picked by Mark Rocha, the president of the school, and Dr. Fellow.”
Which places the man at the center of this 360 degree turnabout by the college, Mark Rocha, college president, under increased scrutiny.
His tenure has been rocky to say the least. Mr. Abcarian reports that he “has been a controversial figure during his four-year tenure, earning no-confidence votes by students and some faculty for what they have said is his imperious approach to his job.
Mr. Black said, “It seems that the atmosphere at Pasadena City College is discriminatory and toxic and dishonest. And I just—I care so much about that school…”
According to TruthDig, Mr. Black has kept his flight back to the US from his London home open for that weekend, as he made other important plans for that trip. “I’m going to see my mom in Washington, D.C., and go give a speech in Chicago,” he said, leaving open the possibility of a rapprochement.
Mr. Black did not immediately reply to inquires made about his ultimate intentions.
UPDATED: 7:30 pm Thursday, May 1:
Pasadena City Manager Michael Beck announced the paid suspension this afternoon after ugly publicity about Dr. Walsh’s comments.
Mr. Beck said Dr. Vivian Yeh will serve as Pasadena’s acting health officer.
“The Pasadena Public Health Department remains a strong and vital part of the city of Pasadena organization and remains dedicated to protecting the health and wellness of our entire community,” he said in a statement announcing Walsh’s suspension.
“The city organization is made up of many different people from all backgrounds, races, faiths, family makeup, gender orientation and political beliefs. The city holds diversity and inclusiveness as an important value in the workplace and in our community.”