Department of Strange Clarifications
Fire chief sets the record straight
In last week's Chronicle (March 11), I inadvertently helped put Austin Fire Department Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr in the awkward position of announcing (initially on the Austin-American Statesman news blog), "I am not a gay woman." That unusual moment came about because I was reporting a story ("Council E-mails Prompt Ethics Complaint, Lawsuit") about some of the fallout from the City Hall e-mail releases – specifically, the NAACP ethics complaint against Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez (along with the Public Information Act lawsuit filed by the Austin Bulldog) for e-mail comments they made during an April 8, 2010, City Council meeting. I interviewed Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder (by phone) about the ethics complaint, and among several other things, asked him what he meant in the complaint by citing "racist and sexist overtones" in the comments by Leffingwell and Martinez: that is, Martinez criticizing City Manager Marc Ott and Assistant City Manager Mike McDonald ("jokes") and Austin African American Firefighters Association President Bobby Johns ("bought off"), and Leffingwell describing Kerr as a "company man."
In direct response to that question, Linder said the following in full (excerpted in the published story), as transcribed from our recorded conversation, now posted in full online with this story:
"I almost just thought – my point is one; clearly, and I've heard this from a lot of people. Obviously, Chief Kerr is not a 'company man.' I think that language was very intentional, personally. We know that Chief Kerr is gay, we know that. That's public knowledge. So I think that is a little slam at her, basically. And the other thing is, just the language itself, about high-ranking city officials – the manager, the assistant city manager, and Bobby Johns – these are all black people, and one white female. I just think that those comments, based on the tone, to me, convey that there's something else underneath the language. That's my take on that. 'Joke' – they're talking about people's competency, Bobby Johns is 'bought and paid for' – I just think it's ugly. I think those comments are very seldom seen in that kind of context, it so happens, with three folks who are black and one is a white female who happens to be gay – that was my take on that."
I reported all this, including Linder's matter-of-fact assertion that "Chief Kerr is gay." I knew nothing of Kerr's sexuality, but Linder said it so bluntly that I naively presumed he knew whereof he spoke. In retrospect, that was foolish, and I should have called Kerr and asked her about Linder's statement (as awkward as that conversation might have been). But I also could not avoid reporting Linder's statement, since he had made it expressly to explain one aspect of his formal ethics complaint. Early Thursday morning, after the Chronicle was published, I got a call from AFD spokesperson Michelle DeCrane, and after first requesting a correction (done), she arranged a personal interview with Kerr, to whom I apologized.
On this subject, Kerr said the following:
"I kind of think it was incumbent upon you to check your facts. I think Michelle had a conversation with you already, you could have called and asked that question. I think what's also important, I just want to set the record straight: I am not a gay woman, but I am totally supportive of all of my friends, co-workers, and employees that are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered. I just think it's important that we do understand that everybody's different. But I want to set the record straight that I am a straight woman – maybe [laughing] much to the disappointment of some ... ."
Kerr also said she had spoken with Linder, and she understood that he was trying to be supportive. From there, we moved on to a wide-ranging conversation about the fire department and its various current challenges – subjects which the Chronicle will be reporting in more detail in the coming weeks.
As for Linder, he left me voice mails and sent me e-mails reacting to the story, and we spoke again by phone later that day. He variously insisted that he had not said Kerr was gay; that he was only describing rumors or what others had said; that I had taken the remark out of context; that I should have realized the remark was only "gossip" not to be reported; or finally, that I had "created this whole story" myself. When I suggested that perhaps he had just been mistaken, he answered, "No, what I said, sir, and I've said it to other people before, that when I filed an initial complaint, I got a lot of phone calls from people telling me, why didn't I include the other comments about her being gay. First of all, I don't know that. Now I've had this interview with 13 people besides just us, sir, it never became an issue. It was very clear to me, that people were concerned about why I didn't add more. First, I don't know that."
Eventually, Linder further clarified his position, saying, "But to be very clear, sir – no, I have no idea what Chief Kerr's sexuality is, it's not an issue for me. I respect her as a female human being, and that's been our relationship. My complaint has nothing to do with her sexuality, it has to do with her being a woman, and she was being disrespected. That was the basis of my complaint, and that's how I feel." When I suggested that he might have said that in the first place, he insisted that he had in fact done so. A bit further on, he added, "I created the complaint based on what we thought was relevant. Her sexuality, sir, is not relevant, for anybody to talk about, at all. I said that to Chief Kerr, she understands it, she accepted my apology – look, you know, if that came out the wrong way, well hey, I apologize. I think it's out of context."
Re-reading the original story, I believe I summarized, reported, or quoted directly everything Linder told me about the ethics complaint. But since in our lengthy second conversation, Linder repeatedly and adamantly accused me of misrepresenting the overall content of the interview, I've transcribed both conversations in full (including incidental details) and posted them online with this story, and readers can make their own judgments.
In an attempt at making some amends for all of this, I'll give the last word to Kerr: "Certainly, I think a lot of this [e-mail] controversy has just gotten out of proportion to what I do as the fire chief – that really, I am here to serve the public. I am here to make sure that – in my vision, two things are important to me. One of those is to make sure that my firefighters go home at the end of every day; and the other is to continue to work towards that vision, that everybody [does their] part to make zero fire deaths. When I can assure that those two things happen, then I am doing my job that I was hired to do. Other than that, everything goes behind us, we move forward, and accomplish those two visions."
Full transcriptions of Michael King's two conversations with Nelson Linder of the Austin NAACP are posted below: