Court Agrees San Diego Firefighters Didn’t Have to Participate in Gay Pride

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday October 18, 2010

Four firefighters who say they suffered physical ailments after being compelled to ride in a gay Pride parade won an appeal to their earlier court victory, with one firefighter bragging that the case has cost taxpayers "millions" of dollars.

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. They claim 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, reported local newspaper the San Diego Union-Tribune in an Oct. 15 article.

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.

"I'm happy with the ruling," said Ghiotto. "The amount of money the city has spent on this is amazing--I'll bet it's in the millions by now." Added the firefighter--who, along with the other three plaintiffs, is still with the Dan Diego fire department--"This whole thing could have been solved in a day. They knew two or three days before that we didn't want to be in that parade."

A lawyer with anti-gay Christian legal society Alliance Defense Fund cast the firefighters' dismay at being in the parade as a matter of moral conviction. "Government employees should never be forced to participate in events or acts that violate their sincerely held beliefs," attorney Charles LiMandri said.

"[Hopefully the ruling] will end the city's attempts to defend its act of compelling people to participate in sexually-charged events against their moral and personal convictions," added another of the firefighters' attorneys, Joseph Infranco. The city has not yet determined whether it will appeal the decision once more, but Infranco said that the Alliance Defense Fund was willing to take the issue "all the way to the California Supreme Court."

The individual plaintiffs were awarded damages ranging up to $14,200, reported the union-Tribune. The lowest award was in the amount of $5,000. The legal costs and fees the plaintiffs were awarded totaled just under $600,000, plus 7% interest. The firemen say that they were motivated by principle, rather than by money. Their lawyer had originally sought a million dollars each for the firemen.

Infranco told anti-gay religious site OneNewsNow that the goal had not been financial, but to ensure that other firefighters would not be forced into participating in Pride events in the future. San Diego's policy regarding participation in the parade had been changed directly after the 2007 parade in which the four firefighters rode to specify that Pride parade participation would be on a volunteer basis only. The firefighters filed their suit in 2009.

A Feb. 19, 2009, Associated Press report on the first verdict handed down in favor of the firefighters said that according to city officials, the firefighters had not informed their supervisors about having been "sexually harassed" by being subjected to catcalls and to the sight of gay men allegedly making sexually suggestive gestures and "groping" one another.

The first trial ended in a hung jury, but juries in the second and most recent trials agreed that the four had been subjected to an "offensive work environment" because of the alleged conduct of some individuals in the crowd.

The firefighters testified that they did not feel they were at risk, nor did the majority of the people in the crowd act in a sexually provocative manner. Moreover, the firemen seemed not to know themselves whether the crowd's allegedly harassing behavior was pervasive: Kane characterized the conduct he found offensive as both isolated to "pockets" and pervasive, while Allison said that offensive conduct was "intermittent" as well as "pretty much throughout" the event.

San Diego then-fire chief Tracy Jarman--an open lesbian--also met with the men to apologize in person about a week and a half after the 2007 parade. Jarman took the position in 2006 and was hailed as a gay "role model." Jarman was criticized for the incident, but reportedly had no knowledge of the men being compelled to ride in the parade until after the fact. Jarman was not cited in the firefighters' suit.

Jarman retired in 2009.

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.