Buddy Baker has a message for the Metro Council members who over the course of debating the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance in recent weeks have equated being gay to being fat, or being tall, or being a Republican.
The District 20 Councilman says his colleagues who have made such claims don’t know what they’re talking about.
A 42-year veteran of the Nashville Fire Department and a devout Catholic, Baker has carved a reputation as a conservative Council member on social issues during his first term in office.
That’s why it was surprising to some to see Baker as one of the 10 sponsors for a proposed ordinance, which would make it unlawful to discriminate against Metro workers or those seeking employment with the government on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Baker explains his support this way: “Of course, blood is thicker than water.”
For Baker, the issue of updating Metro’s nondiscrimination ordinance is personal. The debate surrounding the update has also recalled an array of memories, including burying his 32-year-old son Donald Baker in 1995.
“Well being in the situation I’m in, we had a son who was gay and he was mistreated sometimes,” Baker said. “I really don’t like things like that. Of course blood is thicker than water and I had to go in favor of family every time.”
‘He had a twinkle in his eyes’
Don was the sort of guy who had a “twinkle in his eyes, and you could always tell when he was about to do something mischievous,” said his mother, Audrey.
“He was mischievous and he liked to joke,” she said. “He was very caring.”
After high school, Don made the choice to become a priest. But after one year in seminary, Don came home and told his parents he was gay.
According to Audrey, Don’s strong faith made his sexuality a conflict that stayed with him until the day he died.
“If it was a choice, my son would not have been gay,” Audrey said. “It wasn’t something he dealt with easily. It was a very difficult struggle. And the fact that we’re Catholic made it even worse. It’s not a choice.”
Don went on to become a copy editor at Methodist Publishing and maintained a strong bond with his family. Audrey said not much changed after Don came out — he was still a fixture at the family home, especially around holidays.
“It was something we didn’t agree with at first, but he was our son and we treated him like a son,” Buddy Baker said. “We would have done anything for him that we would have done for our daughter.”
But in the early 1990s when AIDS awareness was in its infancy, Don contracted HIV. Audrey said when the virus manifested as AIDS and Don’s health took a turn for the worse, he actually kept his sickness hidden from his parents.
He was taken to an assisted living center, where Buddy and Audrey would visit him three times a day. Eventually, he developed an infection in his brain that threatened his life. Doctors gave Don three months to live, but he passed away just three weeks later.
“You’re supposed to have your kids bury you,” Buddy said. “It’s not supposed to be the other way around.”
Audrey said she believes Don intentionally sped up his passing by not taking his antibiotics. Audrey said Don was attempting to be unselfish by shielding his parents from the financial burden of taking care of him 24 hours per day. Don’s insurance policy only provided 24-hour care for one month.
“I think that he reached a point where he chose to die,” Audrey said. “I think he did it to spare us.”
Death as a backdrop
It’s against the backdrop of his son’s tragically early passing that Baker enters the fray that is the Metro Council debate on updating the nondiscrimination ordinance. Prior to the bill’s initial second reading on the Aug. 6 Council agenda, District 22 Councilman Eric Crafton filed a series of amendments to the ordinance.
Crafton’s amendments, which he eventually withdrew, would have made it unlawful to discriminate against Metro workers on the basis of their weight, height, political party affiliation and status as a military veteran.
District 4 Councilman Michel Craddock equated the discrimination gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals face to the mistreatment he’s received over the years because he’s over weight.
Jim Gotto justified his opposition to the ordinance by stating he believes a person’s sexuality is ultimately a choice. The District 12 councilman said it is a mistake to provide a protected class status based on a person’s sexual orientation.
Baker said his colleagues, with whom he has been closely aligned on most Council issues the past two years, would have a different perspective if they had lived through his experiences of having a gay son die of AIDS.
“They need to go through it,” Baker said. “My wife and I have been there and done that and we know what it’s like for people discriminating against people like that. It’s just that they need to go through what we’ve gone through, and then they would realize that’s the reason I had to vote for it and sign on to the bill.”
The bill’s primary sponsor, at-large Councilwoman Megan Barry, said she was grateful for Baker’s support on the bill and his willingness to share his personal experiences.
“I think that Buddy’s story highlights that people have real personal and deep experiences and that gets lost in this,” Barry said.
With the bill facing a second reading vote from a divided Council, Audrey said she’s proud of her husband for taking a stand on the issue. Already Baker has decided to seek re-election in two years and Audrey said it’s unclear what her husband’s West Nashville constituents will make of his support for the ordinance.
“When Megan asked him to sign the bill, I was surprised he did because of people’s attitudes they might take against him because of it,” Audrey said. “Because, he has decided to run again and I don’t want people to change their attitudes about him.
“But I’m proud of him. I think he’s proven what a good man he is.”
Wonder how the vote will turn out? Handicapping the vote.