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April 15, 1999


Protests are bedrock on which the country is built

To the editor:

This is in response to the letter written by Ms. Barbara N. Sargent-Baur, professor emerita, as published in the March 4, 1999, issue of the University Times.

The primary thrust of Ms. Sargent-Baur's argument is that Pitt's trustees should not give in to those protesting the University's attempt to nullify Pittsburgh city law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, because to do so would be paramount to a parent giving in to a child throwing a tempter tantrum.

Her argument is nothing new. It is the same argument that Southern politicians used in the early 1960s in response the waves of marches and sit-ins that protested the oppression of Jim Crow. What was the phrase they used? Uppity Negroes, wasn't it? Then again, her argument was used early this century when women took to the streets with their banners, signs and chants, agitating for the right to vote. They even went to extreme measures of civil disobedience, such as when Alice Paul chained herself to the White House fence. What was it that men in high power said? "A woman's place is in the kitchen, not in politics. We won't give in to such tactics."

I find it pitiful that a retired professor does not understand that protest in the face of tyranny is not only a very responsible, adult act, it is the bedrock upon which our democracy has been built. If Ms. Sargent-Baur and those of her ilk would take a refresher in United States history, they would realize that African-Americans, women, people with disabilities, Native Americans, prisoners, laborers, Jewish people, and yes, gay and lesbian Americans have all engaged in protests and demonstrations (just to name a few.)

The result has been a fuller realization of our deeply cherished American value called liberty and justice for all, and not what we started with: a government in which only white, Christian, literate, property-owning males over the age of 21 had full civil liberties. Indeed, without this rich legacy of protest, Ms. Sargent-Baur would never have taught as a university professor, let alone one having the option of using a hyphenated surname today.

Another aspect of Ms. Sargent-Baur's argument that tries to peddle rhetoric under the guise of fact is the old family values argument. This argument speculates (but never proves) that extending medical benefits to anyone except June Cleaver and her two children somehow destroys the family, and society in turn. (Note: It has to be June who is the covered spouse, since in this draconian view, only Ward Cleaver could work outside the home.)

Again, this is the same argument that right-wing demagogues tried to push on us when women sought employment outside the home, when divorce laws were made more equitable, and when employers were asked to subsidize daycare. What Ms. Sargent-Baur fails to realize is that real life is not an episode of "Leave It to Beaver," and as such, only a small minority of U.S. households are comprised of a married male-female couple raising children on a single income. With increasing frequency, Americans are choosing to define family according to their own values and sensibilities, not the sensibilities of a few right-wing conservatives who want to impose their narrow fundamentalist views on everyone else.

Finally, I wish to object to Ms. Sargent-Baur's misinformed beliefs about why employers offer extended health coverage. Rather than the family and societal benefits for which Ms. Sargent-Baur argues, the real reason is this: to provide compensation that attracts and retains the most qualified employees, period. In today's society, wherein we have a heightened sensibility of fairness, we place a high degree of importance on an employer's ability to treat its employees fairly. When gay and lesbian employees ask for extended health coverage for their domestic partners, it simply boils down to this: They want equal pay for equal work. It's a matter of fairness. Furthermore, when an employer extends domestic partner health coverage, it benefits all the employees, since all employees can then qualify for the same compensation, and the level of fairness in the organization is increased. In turn, a climate is created that helps attract and retain the most qualified personnel, and the employer benefits accordingly.

Maybe that's why EVERY Ivy League school in the country offers domestic partner health coverage.

I find it sad that a professor emerita (like some Pitt trustees) fails to understand that protest in the face of tyranny is a very responsible, very adult, very democratic form of behavior. I also find it sad that a professor emerita fails to grasp basic concepts of fairness in the work place, like equal pay for equal work. Considering this lack of understanding comes from a woman, particularly a woman who apparently served in the workforce for a number of years, it is particularly disheartening. Equal pay for equal work: The concept didn't start with Deborah Henson's suit against Pitt, it's something women in the workforce, like the retired professor, have been requesting, even demanding through protest, for many, many years.

Paul H. Hawkins

CGS Class of 1983

GSPIA Class of 1984

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