Work can really be hell.
"The second day of work, they stole my security card and pasted my photo on the head of a man in the middle of this gay threesome," says Mark Anderson, describing the beginning of a train of abuses he suffered as a stockbroker trainee in Los Angeles for Cantor Fitzgerald & Co., the largest government securities trading firm in the world. "Then they put the photo on the bulletin board and said, `Now we know why Mark Anderson was hired: to service our bisexual clientele.'"
Most Americans would probably find such treatment unfair and offensive. Indeed, polls conducted by the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay lobbying group, indicate that 68% of voters are in favor of federal legislation to protect gays and lesbians from job discrimination. But that doesn't necessarily mean clear sailing for the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which was expected to be introduced in the Senate in May. Opponents of the act, rather than appealing to antigay bias, have been trading on the perception that the bill simply isn't needed.
Most gays, especially those facing discrimination at work, would certainly disagree. Should it pass in Congress and be signed into law, ENDA will no doubt represent a major victory in the struggle for gay rights. But observers following individual cases of workplace bias say it will be no panacea.
Particularly at the state level, where such antidiscrimination laws already exist, employers are finding ways around them. "When there are legal protections prohibiting discrimination in employment, private individuals will often try to interfere with their enforcement," says Amelia Craig, executive director of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, a Boston-based legal group.
No one understands that better than Anderson. "I kept hoping I would get through the training portion of it and then all this stuff would stop," he says, referring to coworkers' homophobic epithets and the showers of spitballs and dirty tissues he endured. "So I figured that I would tolerate this garbage for a chance at a career. I didn't realize it was going to be this bad."
A final incident revealed how entrenched the homophobia was at Cantor Fitzgerald. While Anderson was in New York for additional training, Cantor executives shot a video that includes footage of Anderson's car covered with such gay-bashing slogans as POO-STABBER, BUTT PIRATE, and POLE SMOKER. They then allegedly showed the video at a company sales conference, pretending to introduce it as a training tape for brokers seeking business in a gay section of Los Angeles. Knowing nothing about the car or the video, Anderson was in attendance as several hundred people viewed the tape. After the conference the company distributed more than 100 copies of the video to clients, competitors, and others.
It was only after enduring this treatment for 13 months, in 1994 and 1995, that Anderson was fired. In response he filed a suit in California state court. His case is on hold, however, and it's unclear whether it will be heard, since, like all Cantor trainees, Anderson signed a document upon commencing employment stating that he would settle any disputes with the company through arbitration. Cantor officials declined to comment on the case.
Sometimes the role played by sexual orientation is less clear-cut but no less critical in obstructing a worker's access to justice. Such was the case for Susan Davis, a therapist at Hennepin County Home School, a Minneapolis-area juvenile correctional facility. Davis says that for 2 1/2 years she was sexually harassed by a female coworker and that her boss failed to address the situation simply because it involved two women.
"It started with this coworker of mine that I rented a room to in my house," Davis recalls. "She wanted more out of the situation, but I was already involved with somebody. Within a few months I had to ask her to leave. That's when the workplace stuff started--buying me gifts, cleaning up after me. She would hug and stroke me, tell nasty sexual jokes. And through all this she would tell other employees that she and I were involved in an intimate sexual relationship."
Davis talked to the coworker's boss and other administrators, she says, but they refused to take the situation seriously. "They never wanted to address the fact that this was a woman harassing another woman," Davis says. Instead they insisted that Davis had brought the situation on herself. A county official did not return phone calls asking for comment.
The harassment began in October 1991; in 1994 Davis filed suit in a case that has now been appealed to the Minnesota supreme court. Although in Davis's view sexual-orientation discrimination was central to her case, in the end that argument appeared too difficult to prove and was dropped from the suit.
Antidiscrimination laws, of course, will not by themselves bring such conflicts to an end. No one could have seemed better protected from antigay bias on the job than Polly Attwood, a teacher at Brookline High School in Brookline, Mass. With Massachusetts law prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and with a nondiscrimination clause in her teaching contract, Attwood felt safe identifying herself as a lesbian in the classroom when it seemed appropriate--for instance, in the course of discussions about state initiatives to protect gay men and lesbians.
Following one such instance, however, a female student and her family expressed to Attwood that they had found the revelation upsetting. The student stopped coming to class and eventually left the school. Almost two years later, in March 1996, the student's parents threatened to sue Attwood and the school for more than $300,000, claiming their daughter had suffered severe emotional distress. Although they never followed through on their threat, it remains a liability hanging over Attwood's head, and some see the threatened lawsuit as part of a trend in strategy for opponents of gay rights.
Such backhanded forms of employment discrimination are just as likely in corporate settings, where conservative workers may level charges that an openly gay colleague has violated their religious rights, predicts Craig. "I could imagine that one might see a dispute by some employee claiming it's not fair to have an out gay employee wearing a pink triangle, for example," she says.
Indeed, such a dispute has led, according to the employees involved, to two dismissals in a case involving AutoNation USA, a Florida-based company that sells used cars. In November 1996, Brian Long, an AutoNation employee in Grapevine, Tex., wrote a letter to the company's chief executive officer expressing concern about the termination of Lyndse Stratton, a temporary employee who was released after a conflict over a gay rights poster she had displayed in her cubicle. Two weeks later--with no response from the CEO--Long, who is gay, posted a copy of the letter to a company computer server, making it accessible to all employees. The following month Long was informed that he was being investigated. A few days later he was fired.
Even though Texas has no law against antigay discrimination, Long says AutoNation officials told him the termination was based on "misuse of the E-mail system": "I was told again and again that it had nothing to do with my sexuality." (AutoNation officials could not be reached for comment.) In fact, Long says, the internal server he used to transmit the document was also used by other staff members for non-work-related items. Although Long believes antigay discrimination played a role in his termination, he says legal advisers told him that a case citing violation of First Amendment rights would be much stronger than anything related to sexual orientation. In the end he decided he had nothing to gain by pursuing legal redress.
Even as more laws opposing it are written, employment discrimination related to sexual orientation may become harder to prove, says Jon Davidson, a supervising attorney with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in Los Angeles. "As with any area of discrimination, the first cases that you see are the most blatant ones," Davidson says. "Once employers become more sophisticated, the discrimination doesn't automatically go away, but it does tend to be more hidden. "
That doesn't mean, of course, that laws like ENDA are ineffective--or unnecessary. "Whatever laws are there, some employers will try to get around them," says Davidson. Others, however, will be deterred from discriminating in the first place. That's a benefit that's hard to measure, but worthwhile.
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|Title Annotation:||discrimination against gays|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Jun 10, 1997|
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