What it’s like to get fired for being gay in 2018
As 2018 comes to a close and I reflect back, it’s been been a year of tremendous change for me. It’s been one of most challenging and life-changing experiences I’ve ever had.
This wasn’t the year I expected to become a target of homophobia. Not in 2018, not anymore, not since we’ve come so far.
But indeed that’s precisely what happened. And so without further introduction, here is the story of a very special Christmas gift that American Bible Society delivered to its staff in December 2017.
It was December 5, 2017. The staff of American Bible Society gathered that Tuesday morning just as they always did for their weekly prayer and staff meeting.
Few knew what, but almost everyone knew something was about to unfold.
But it wasn’t a normal Tuesday. The atmosphere was thick with unease. The room was quiet. The usual friendly morning chatter was replaced with stark silence and looks of fear, confusion, and nervousness. Few knew what, but almost everyone knew something was about to unfold.
I had been tipped off a few days before. And that morning I wore a rainbow-colored plaid shirt in silent protest. My colleagues were none the wiser as we assembled for the meeting.
The room went silent as Roy Peterson, president of American Bible Society took to the podium. While he rarely appeared at ease in the spotlight, that day he appeared even more mechanical and soulless than usual.
Peterson gave a brief introduction, scripted and trepidatious, as if he was reading his guilty plea to the court. He then proceeded to read the document he was presenting, the Affirmation of Biblical Community — a code of conduct for staff, which American Bible Society will adopt in January of 2019. It will be a part of the organization’s employee handbook, which employees are required to sign each year to continue their employment with the Society.
Much of the Affirmation is pretty standard — rules that most anyone could abide by, such as forbidding lying, cheating, and stealing, being respectful of others, etc. But then it gets to the juicy part, including:
- Actively attending and participating in a church
- Not having sex outside of heterosexual marriage
- Avoiding divorce except under extreme circumstances
As the presentation continued, staff were informed that they would not be asked to sign the document until 2019, and that they had until then, nearly a full 13 months, to make their decisions.
I don’t think anything could have prepared me for how it would feel to sit amongst my colleagues… [and be told] that I was no longer welcome there.
Even though I knew it was coming, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for how it would feel to sit amongst my colleagues, some of whom I’d worked beside for almost 10 years, and be told by the president of American Bible Society that I was no longer welcome there. No longer wanted. No longer good enough. Fired *— because I am gay.
I had never actively hidden my sexuality from my colleagues, but I was never particularly forthcoming about it either. I’m not one to bring my private life to work. And so many of my coworkers didn’t even know that as Roy Peterson spoke those words to the staff that morning, he was also ending my nearly 10 year career at American Bible Society.
It was jarring. It would have been jarring even if it didn’t directly impact me. It hurt. It raised questions in my mind that had long been resolved, and it rubbed salt on old wounds that had finally begun to heal. As I wrote in a letter to the senior leadership team and board of directors:
On a personal level, wounds that had long healed over, often with the help of my close colleagues at American Bible Society, were once again opened and sore. I again had to grapple with questions I had long ago put to bed. Suddenly a place that I had long felt safe was no longer safe.
My team was heartbroken like me. It seemed everyone was, besides the senior leadership team. It appeared that Roy Peterson, Geof M. [last name withheld, as he has since left the organization], Bob Briggs, Laura Dabkowski, Steve Kao, Jim Puchy, and Mark Wilson had made a suicide pact, to stick together and defend their hateful Affirmation of Biblical Community to the bitter end, should it come to that.
American Bible Society, for its first 200 years, had prided itself in its open-ness. In the words of the founders, the mission of the Society was to distribute the Bible without note or comment. The juxtaposition of a mission so broad, yet so laser-focused was a rallying point for staff to come together from across lines of difference.
We, the staff, all felt the gravity that day as these present day leaders rewrote that two century old mission and forced staff to interpret the book they steward in a very specific, closed-minded way — a first for the organization. I’m sure the founders of American Bible Society rolled over in their graves.
Throughout the rest of the day, and over the next few weeks, many of my colleagues stopped by my office to talk privately. Some knew how directly the Affirmation impacted me, and others did not. But they all were grief-stricken. They knew this document was an effort designed to hurt a subset of the Society’s flesh and blood.
It was challenging as a leader in the organization to put my own feelings aside in these conversations, allowing the team that worked for me and other colleagues to safely vent and process and ask questions and share their concerns about themselves and others whom we knew would not be allowed to stay.
In each of these conversations, we would talk through lists of our coworkers and wonder how they might be impacted by the Affirmation, who might stay, who might go, and what American Bible Society would be like as an organization a short 13 months later.
Over the coming weeks, the leadership team hosted a number of follow-up question and answer sessions for staff and managers. Some staff, it seemed, had read the Affirmation and didn’t quite realize its gravity. Others, so entrenched in their conservative worldview, didn’t realize the policy’s intent to hurt others. I recall in a session for managers a few days after the announcement, one of my colleagues, Lee, jocularly asked, “where do I sign?”
Every answer from leadership was carefully couched, so as not to publicly make any statements that could be damning.
The question and answer sessions just led to more questions and confusion. Every answer from leadership was carefully couched, so as not to publicly make any statements that could be damning. The display was disgusting. They were either completely clueless of how this policy would impact staff, or they just didn’t care — maybe a combination of the two.
While little was made clear, one point was made very clear. ABS was offering no severance package for those who were leaving at the end of the year when the policy took effect.
It was finally sinking in. As a pragmatist, I immediately took action, knowing I was no longer welcome at American Bible Society and that I had no chance of a severance if I stuck around for the year to help aid the transition. I reached out to my network to begin a job search.
Meanwhile, a group of employees began gathering to discuss how to address their concerns with the Affirmation with leadership. They tossed around ideas of meeting with leadership and started drafting a letter. It was clear that I wasn’t the only one unhappy about the new policy. But I still wasn’t sure there were that many other staff who were as directly impacted as me.
Eventually those efforts fizzled out, as it was determined that nothing short of a miracle or nuclear holocaust could change the minds of Roy and his cronies. The leadership team was committed to the Affirmation, despite the groaning of staff.
It was a few days after the announcement, still early December. I was still processing the news and its impact on me. I was sitting at home in the evening. My boss called me in a panic. She said that Geof, one of the senior vice presidents, had texted her concerned about me. Well, not concerned about me, concerned about what I might do.
Hearing news of Jeremy organizing dissent… can you clarify?
I wasn’t organizing anything, besides my own exit. And this came from the man who hired me to work at American Bible Society in 2008. It was terrifying to be targeted in some sort of witch hunt by someone whom I thought trusted me and valued my work.
The feeling that I needed to leave quickly was further intensified the next day. On Facebook, I received a message from Steve Kao, American Bible Society’s general counsel. While it wasn’t abnormal for me to have Facebook contact with other members of leadership at ABS, this was the first from Steve. We had a few work-related interactions, but never crossed into private, personal communication.
Hey Jeremy, don’t have your personal email address, so hope messaging like this is okay for you. Just wondered if you wanted to talk “off the record” sometime about stuff at ABS and especially the Affirmation, which a mutual friend has suggested was concerning to you. Don’t feel obligated to respond or accept my invite to chat, but hope you take me up on it sometime. Rest of this day is busy for me, but there are some times next week. See you around, Steve
Again, this message was terrifying. I felt threatened, like I had a target on my back. I knew I had to get out — and soon. I knew I couldn’t trust the leadership team anymore. It was devastating, since I had worked so closely with these same people for so many years.
These crazed hate-mongers clearly had no boundaries.
After receiving the message, I cleared off my work computer of all of my personal accounts — email, iMessage, Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook, Twitter, 1Password. I had nothing to hide, but I knew I could no longer trust the leadership team and what they might employ the IT department to do. I knew my productivity would be stifled without access to these accounts on my company-issued laptop, which I often used to aid my work at ABS, but that was the price they were going to have to pay for violating my trust and privacy. These crazed hate-mongers clearly had no boundaries. I didn’t know where they were looking or what they were looking for. Clearly they smelled blood, and I wasn’t going to fall prey to their witch hunt.
After I settled myself down and finished cutting all ties between my personal and professional lives, I sent an email to Laura Dabkowski, senior vice president over human resources, hoping as a human resources professional she might take appropriate action to protect a staff member from abuse.
I appreciate all of your efforts to support our staff this week.
I wanted to bring to your attention some communication that I received this afternoon from Steve Kao, which I have attached a screenshot of.
While I respect Steve’s leadership, value him as a person, and assume that this message was sent with good intentions, I wanted to express my concern to you.
This type of communication from an SLT member, especially from our General Counsel, sent to my personal Facebook account, and with no prior outside-of-work relationship established, makes me extremely uncomfortable. I feel as though I’ve been singled out, bordering on harassed through this effort to contact me outside of official ABS communication without any context for the communication.
I’m not necessarily asking you to do anything with this information, but I wanted to voice my concern.
Thanks again for your support of us throughout this process.
Laura confirmed receipt of my email, and said that she understood my concern. But as far as I could tell, she did nothing. I hoped that raising a red flag of harassment would help curtail this behavior.
I didn’t hear anything more. Things went back to normal, more or less — as normal as they could be. The holidays came and went, and the new year began.
As 2018 started, I continued conversations with my network of contacts, looking for new opportunities. On January 17th, I was offered a new position and immediately accepted it. In just a few weeks, I would be leaving American Bible Society. While I was excited for the opportunity ahead, I was still scared. I had been comfortable in my job at American Bible Society for almost 10 years. And this was something new. I feared the change and all the what-ifs that came with it.
My last week came quickly. Sometimes you have to make yourself laugh to keep yourself from crying and that’s exactly what I did throughout that week.
I snickered as they quite literally prayed the gay away.
First, a representative from HR asked me if I wanted them to pray for me in a staff meeting while I was still there or after I was gone. It was nice of them to give you options, I suppose, for this awkward tradition that HR used in lieu of any formal announcement that someone was leaving. I told them to do it while I was there. How often does one get the opportunity to hear his own eulogy? I wasn’t going to pass that up.
I snickered as they quite literally prayed the gay away. I had intentionally told very few people outside of my own department, and I listened for the gasps from the staff as they heard it for the first time.
Later that week I received the infamous exit survey from HR, and I filled it out with the same jocular attitude that my peers displayed when they made light of the Affirmation just a few short weeks before.
What caused you to leave ABS? The Affirmation
What would make you stay at ABS? Not having the Affirmation
Would you encourage friends or family to work at ABS? Yes, but I don’t have any friends who would be willing to sign the Affirmation
I giggled to myself as I sent it in. And after meeting with the HR manager to go over my exit documents, I think she was amused by my answers too.
As my last week came to a close, many colleagues stopped by to wish me well and apologize for the way the organization treated me. Even those who philosophically stood on the side ABS was taking were in disbelief that the organization would take such a specific stance after so many years.
My department organized a going away gathering for me. I was surprised by how many of my coworkers showed up and the kind words they had for me as I moved on to my new job.
That Friday when I left, it was nothing short of surreal. I handed in my security badge. I said my goodbyes. I was done.
I left with a clear sense that I was not being forced out by the staff community of American Bible Society.
Rather, I was being fired by president Roy Peterson and his senior leadership team.
After the End
I was free.
When I got home, I opened my computer and read over a letter I had written one last time. Then I held my breath and sent it to the entire senior leadership team and board of directors of American Bible Society.
I didn’t want anyone to hear about my departure and not be 100 percent clear that it was completely in response to the Affirmation.
Over my last couple weeks at American Bible Society, I spent a lot of time sifting through my thoughts to write this letter. I wanted to make sure my voice was heard as I exited. I didn’t want anyone to hear about my departure and not be 100 percent clear that it was completely in response to the Affirmation. I knew that leadership had a way of believing what they wanted about those who left — that they were drawn out by external forces, not pushed out by the work of the senior leadership team. And I knew the senior leadership team could not be trusted in isolation, so I included the board as well.
As I started my new job it was overwhelming, but I immediately felt it was going to be a good change.
Having escaped the clutches of the bigoted senior leadership team at American Bible Society, I finally replied to the Facebook message I received from Steve Kao a few weeks earlier.
For the record, I found this message to be offensive. You crossed boundaries between my work life and personal life. As we have no prior relationship outside of ABS, reaching out to my personal social media accounts asking to talk off the record made me extremely uneasy. Additionally having heard through the grapevine that Geof and other SLT members had targeted me as a “dissenter” before receiving this message also made this message unsettling.
I hope you will consider the ramifications of this kind of communication in the future. I would hope someone with your legal background would make wiser choices than this.
Unsurprisingly he never replied. I hope he learned his lesson.
In May, a friend connected me with a reporter, Yonat Shimron from Religion News Service, who interviewed me and others who had left American Bible Society because of the Affirmation. She published a story which finally broke the news of the new policy to the public:
It felt good to have my story told.
A number of articles were published on the subject, including one on Philly.com:
Eventually the news cycle moved on. The buzz was over. My moment in the limelight ended. I was glad the news had broken, since it had not been announced publicly by the organization. People needed to know that this was happening. The leadership of ABS needed to feel scared, even if just for a minute. And I hope that the coverage did just that.
From where I was a year ago, I never would have thought about leaving American Bible Society. I had an amazing team that I hand picked and assembled myself. I worked in a department that was equally great. And I had a boss whom I was truly supported by and a partner with.
Fast forward to today. I love my new job. I love my new coworkers. I am as happy and as excited to work every day as I ever have been in my whole career. I am challenged and stretched and supported in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I’ve had the opportunity to grow and stretch myself.
But every day I still remember that in 2018 I was fired* by American Bible Society for being gay.
*Author’s Note: I use the term fired to describe the pressure to leave that I felt as an LGBT employee. I left voluntarily under the pretense that if I could not sign the Affirmation in January, I would be have eventually been terminated forcefully.