Buddy Baker takes nondiscrimination ordinance personally

Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 12:00am
Buddy and Audrey Baker cradle a photo of their son Donald, who passed away in 1995. His son’s death is impacting Buddy’s Metro Council nondiscrimination vote. Photo by Joon Powell for The City Paper

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.

10 Comments on this post:

By: OPENmindedONE on 8/13/09 at 6:09

Councilman Baker should be praised for standing up for what is right. I'd like to know when Jim Gotto decided he was heterosexual.......

By: MeretriciousCreation on 8/13/09 at 7:51

I first had contact with Buddy Baker during the recent push to stop May Town and I have to say this is a man who listens and tries to represent ALL of his constituents fairly. His primary concern is the safety and happiness of everyone he represents.
I find it ignorant and appalling that there are still people who believe that being gay is a choice. Why in God's name would some one choose to be discriminated against, hated and possibly even killed for who they love? It's madness to think that one's sexuality is a choice! I applaud Mr. & Mrs. Baker for sharing such an obviously painful story with everyone and I thank them for letting love conquer all in the case of their son. I wish that more people could see past that which blinds them to the people underneath the labels they are given. I for one will vote for Buddy when the time comes, he has done right by me and what I believe despite our basic political differences.

By: Kosh III on 8/13/09 at 7:53

Religious opinion has special protection rights yet it is a CHOICE of lifestyle.

By: JohnR on 8/13/09 at 8:00

I am a constituent of Mr Bakers and I will not vote for him again. First lets talk about May Town. You know he was for it before he was against it. It seems to me that he has trouble making decisions. He is at best wishy washy. He was ok with May Town until he got wind that the people that live in his district was not for it and then he conveniently changed his mind.

I am four square against giving secial rights to any gay or lesbian person based on their sexual preference.

I have spoken to Norma Hand to encourage her to run again. At any rate I will not vote for Mr. Baker not just for this reason but for the pattern he has established in the 2 years he has represented us.

He has trouble making decisions.

By: govskeptic on 8/13/09 at 9:33

When are we going to drop the term "Representative" or "District Councilperson" if their main consideration is internal and not based mainly on what the voters of their particular area wish in their government. A local poll cannot include every item, but deeply personal agendas such as this one can't be the only factor either.

By: Saveusall on 8/13/09 at 1:07

Yes, people can change their minds -- once the get more information, evidence, etc. -- and make better, more informed decisions. That's what I believe Mr. Baker did in both cases. Regarding May Town, once he got the facts and realized such a development would irrevocably damage Nashville's original downtown, and thus all of Metro, he changed his mind. The same with the non-discrimination ordinance. I seriously doubt Mr. Baker, reportedly a social conservative, has always been supportive of GLBT rights. But with his family's experience with their son, his eyes were opened, and so he changed his mind. What else could a compassionate, intelligent individual do? If I were in his district, I would definitely vote for and strongly support Mr. Baker in future elections. Bravo!!

By: brrrrk on 8/13/09 at 2:38

Kosh III said,

"Religious opinion has special protection rights yet it is a CHOICE of lifestyle."

Really? Is liking brussels sprouts a choice? What about ice cream? What flavor do you like? Chocolate, Vanilla? And did you actually decide to like on one flavor over the other? And when did you decide to be heterosexual (which I'm assuming you are)? And did you try both before you made your decision? If you didn't, who knows, you might be gay. Preferences are not a choice, they are what makes you who you are........ period. No, being gay is not a lifestyle CHOICE, but judging someone because of their sexual orientation IS a CHOICE.

By: brrrrk on 8/13/09 at 2:44

I get really tired of Conservatives who "see the light" about an issue when it happens to them. All people deserve respect and equal treatment regardless of who's family they are in. After all, aren't we all the son or daughter of someone else? Chris Rock said it best, "It doesn't make any sense to hate anyone because whoever you hate will eventually be in your family".

By: airvols on 8/14/09 at 10:04

This is an non discussion, being gay is not a choice and anyone who really belives that denies all medical and psychological evidence out there. This should be passed and we need to elevate all people who reside on this earth not just the chosen ones the reglious right believes qualify for their party. Diversity is what makes us great in this country, not hate and polical gain by one party or the other.

By: nash001 on 8/15/09 at 5:25

This ordinance is about gay employees being able to make a living without the continual threat of being harrassed or fired from their job just because their fellow employees or boss don't approve of the way they live their life. Every good employee, gay or straight, should be able to go to work and make a living w/o the threat of others opinions. Thank you Mr. Baker, for understanding this. I want to say that I feel your son, Donald, would be very touched and very proud of you.