Suit by Gay Fireman Alleges Workplace Harassment

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday May 13, 2011

A firefighter in White Plains, New York, says in a suit that he was targeted for taunts and given certain job assignments after his supervisor outed him to his colleagues, leading to a hostile workplace.

43-year-old Steven Saunders is the son and grandson of firefighters, according to a May 13 Irish Central article. The article also says that Saunders, a father of three, served in the military for 17 years.

White Plains, the county seat of Westchester County, is located between the Hudson River and Long Island Sound. The city has about 60,000 residents.

The suit describes a sequence of events in which gossip began to circulate regarding Saunders, and the firefighter went to his supervisor, Deputy Fire Chief Richard Houlihan, about it. When Saunders admitted that he was gay, the Houlihan asked him to keep quiet about his sexuality, the suit says, but then spread the word himself.

Saunders' colleagues began to mock and harass him, the suit alleges, and Houlihan did nothing to stop it. Rather, the supervisor told Saunders to "keep your mouth shut" about the homophobic harassment, and to "get thicker skin because everyone gets teased--Blacks, Hispanics and Italians," according to the Irish Central article.

The suit attributes a job reassignment two years ago from the firehouse to service as the Houlihan's driver to a wish to put Saunders in "his own room and the other firefighters would not have to sleep" in the same space as Saunders.

"I grew up in a family of firefighters and my whole life I knew I'd be a firefighter, too," Saunders told the press at a March 12 media conference. "I'm also a father and a gay man. An important part of my identity has been taken away from me by the people that I trusted."

The Associated Press reported that Saunders says he has been unable to work since last summer, because he is struggling with a panic disorder and anxiety in the wake of the abuse he claims to have endured.

A White Plains spokesperson said that such conduct from city employees would not be accepted.

Saunders is "is seeking justice not only for himself, but for other gay firefighters," attorney Randolph McLaughlin told the press, mostpopular|text|FRONTPAGE| reported on May 12.

"Mr. Saunders has suffered through severe discrimination and harassment by the White Plains Fire Department because of his sexual orientation," Debra Cohen, another attorney, told the press, reported. "The department has not gotten the message that [anti-discrimination measures at the city and state level] do not allow harassment based on sexual orientation."

Added Cohen, "We are now in the 21st century, where people are free to work at the job they love and to love the people that they love."

The suit seeks compensation and damages in the seven-figure range.

In addition to financial compensation, Saunders said, he was looking to "send a message to my children not to be afraid to stand up for who you are."

On the flip side of the coin, several San Diego firefighters who said that they had suffered distress and sexual harassment while participating in a Pride parade won their court case last year.

The firemen were required to fill in for colleagues who had initially agreed to ride in a fire engine in a 2007 Pride parade, but then backed out. The San Diego fire department revised its rules so that by the time of the following year's parade, only volunteers were expected to ride in the parade. But the plaintiffs--Chad Allison, John Ghiotto, Jason Hewitt and Alexander Kane--said that they should never have been compelled to ride in the parade to begin with.

The men claimed that that they were subjected to catcalls and the sight of semi-nude men carrying out "simulated sex acts," and say that what they went through constitutes sexual harassment.

A three-justice appellate panel affirmed the earlier ruling in the firefighters' favor, which awarded them a total of $34,300. The appellate panel also awarded the four with more than half a million dollars in legal costs.

The plaintiffs said that they suffered a variety of physical complaints due to stress after being in the gay parade, including anxiety, headaches, and irritable bowel syndrome.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.