In 2013, delfín bautista took a leap.
With graduate degrees in social work and divinity already in hand, bautista—who uses they/them pronouns and lowercase spelling of their name—packed their bags and relocated from the sunny gay mecca of Miami to the distinctly more seasonal Athens, Ohio. As the incoming Director of Ohio University’s LGBT Center, bautista was excited to make a difference in the higher ed community.
“I was proud to lift up the needs of LGBTQ folks as a whole, both on campus and in our region, while also making sure to lift up the needs of queer people of color and trans individuals who have often been neglected,” says bautista.
For nearly six years, bautista filled the role of Director: sponsoring programs, guest-lecturing in classes, working with students and student groups, and working on such initiatives as implementing the university’s name and pronoun policy for students as well as advocating for trans healthcare for employees.
On January 10, 2019, that work came to an end as bautista was abruptly terminated from Ohio University. Although bautista says a clear reason was not given at the time of termination, a month after the firing, the university alleged that bautista made more than $6,000 worth of purchases that were not reportedly covered under university policy.
Now bautista is fighting back. They filed two lawsuits last week: one alleging that bautista was treated unfairly on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and the other a class action requesting relief for university employees who have been required to pay back work-related expenses.
The Buckeye Flame spoke with bautista and Michael Fradin, their attorney, to get the backstory on working at Ohio University, the decision to file suit, and what readers can learn from this case.
First, take us back to 2013. Why apply for the role of Director of the LGBT Center?
bautista: I had been looking for an opportunity to enter the world of higher ed as a way of using my graduate degrees in an unconventional way. And then I found this job posting at Ohio University. I didn’t even know Athens existed. <laughs>
One of the things I very quickly realized was that, as a movement, we focus on what happens on the coasts or in the big cities with regards to LGBTQ equality. For the most part, the whole middle of the country gets overlooked, so I was excited for the opportunity to learn and share the LGBTQ and social justice narratives in Ohio.
I also very quickly recognized that the image of Appalachia I was raised with is not the Appalachia that really exists. So this position represented the opportunity to delve into queer and racial justice narratives and learn from them.
My dearly beloved and I moved to Athens, Ohio seven years ago not really knowing what would happen in a small town, in a rural part of the state, being not only out LGBTQ but also being people of color. We were ready and nervous to take on that adventure and I was really excited to be a part of the LGBT Center.
How would you describe your experiences being the Director?
bautista: Good and overwhelming. We were the LGBT Center for Ohio University, but we also had a responsibility to the community. And whatever ways I could, I tried to serve as a resource to Athens, the region, and OU’s regional and satellite campuses.
Because I was a full-time staff-of-one with great student workers, the amount of support we could provide was limited but very much in the mindset that we had the responsibility to serve. It led to the opportunity to be creative, to listen to students, to listen to faculty and staff, and to dream of new initiatives and efforts.
It was a lot of fun. It was a lot of work. I could start the day guest-lecturing in Athens and finish the day doing a workshop in Zanesville. It made my staff a little confused trying to keep up with me. <laughs> By the time Friday came along, I was done with the world.
How much warning did you have that your employment was near an end or at an end?
bautista: None. I noticed as soon as [Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Gigi Secuban] started, I was being treated very differently than my fellow directors. But at no point was it brought to any of our attentions that our jobs were on the line. I did notice that I was treated differently, that there was friction and hostility towards me because of the questions I would ask in meetings and the perspective I bring. But at no point was it brought to my attention that I was risking being fired or terminated or reprimanded.
How did you find out about the termination?
bautista: January 10th will be forever in my memory.
I went to work like normal. I did notice that I started having trouble with my e-mail and with other parts of my OU account. I just thought it was a glitch and didn’t think any more of it.
That day, I had a meeting with Human Resources with my fellow diversity directors to talk about a new initiative. During the meeting, I received a text message from a friend that they were receiving an automated reply that I no longer worked for the university. Again, I thought it was a glitch.
When I got back to the Center, Dr. Secuban was there with HR representatives for a meeting. They said they had a meeting, and I didn’t know there was a meeting. They said there was a calendar invite, but I didn’t receive the calendar invite. But I asked, “How can I help you?” And that’s when I received the news.
This year-and-a-half later, with the years you worked there, how do you wrap your mind around your termination?
bautista: I think I’m still wrapping my mind around it. Just the lack of professionalism, the lack of human decency. To be told in such an unprofessional matter just completely floored me. For HR to be very inhumane about the whole thing and not recognizing my humanity in that moment is something I’m still wrapping my mind around.
I was told that the reason that they do what they do is to treat everyone equally. Ok, but what about treating everyone equally and with dignity? To be escorted out of the building and how I found out I was being terminated just reflected a shift in the university. It all said, “We’re not people. We’re machines that can be discarded at any time.”
Michael, where do we start with the legal approach here?
Fradin: I think it’s important to point out that the termination occurred soon after delfín had made multiple complaints of discrimination. So from a legal perspective, there’s certainly a strong basis for retaliation claims and violations of various civil rights acts.
What do we hope to accomplish with a lawsuit?
Fradin: My office wants to accomplish what delfín wants to accomplish. My role is to serve as delfín’s legal counsel, but this is about them.
My office has brought civil rights cases before, multiple times, for years. It’s the primary focus of my office. Oftentimes at the beginning, we don’t know precisely what it is we want to accomplish. But we know and my clients know that their civil rights have been violated and that they can’t just do nothing about that. They have to do something. So my role is to do that something, to see how that something develops.
In this particular case, delfín’s job was to protect the most vulnerable members of the student community. And that’s a particularly difficult task. This includes students who in their every day lives face oppression and prejudice from their families, from their community, from their fellow students, from their teachers. delfín not only provided a sympathetic ear to these students, but was also actively engaged in their lives. delfín was a warrior for these students, a protector of these students, and never flinched when it was time to go to bat for these students.
So what is our goal? We’re going to demonstrate that delfín’s expenditures were business-related and the University’s allegations that delfín was somehow irresponsible in their spending was merely a pretext for discriminatory motives against them.
As people read this, what do you want people to know and/or do?
bautista: I want people to continue to ask questions whether they are connected to Ohio University in some way or to raise them in their own place of employment. There are resources that we can turn to, but some of those resources aren’t as effective as we think.
There are means by which we can hold places accountable. Sometimes that means taking a risk and connecting with off-campus resources like connecting with a legal entity.
We all have to demand transparency and accountability. Don’t settle for the first answer you get. Try to always go deeper.