Can You Sue Your Boss for Teasing You about Being Gay (Even If You’re Not)?
Employee is harassed after not acting like a “man’s man”
Here’s an interesting case for you armchair lawyers out there. See if you can figure out how the court ruled in this recent lawsuit that contained an unexpected twist.
A man was continually ridiculed by his supervisor and coworkers for not conforming to the stereotype of a “man’s man.” The employee was addressed by multiple and offensive gay slurs. Coworkers even attempted to touch his genitals as part of an ongoing workplace joke. The employee made numerous complaints and was fired. He sued for sex discrimination.
The legal background:
The EEOC announced earlier this year that sexual-orientation discrimination is illegal under existing sex discrimination laws. (See our blog post about that here.) The logic: discrimination based on sexual preference is contingent on a person’s gender, therefore it is unlawful.
The complicating factor:
Despite his boss’s and his coworkers’ assertions to the contrary, the man in this case was heterosexual.
The question before the court:
Did this worker have a valid claim of sex discrimination if he was being singled out because of people’s perception rather than reality?
Let’s dig into the details of the case a little more before we reveal what the court said and what it means to employees.
Didn’t Seal the Deal
Zachary Tyndall’s troubles began after a school dance. At the time, he was an upperclassmen at the local high school, as well as a volunteer cadet at the Berlin Fire Company.
Several other volunteer cadets told the supervisor that a pretty female classmate had wanted to have sex with Tyndall after the dance, but he’d turned her down because she was extremely intoxicated.
After that, the supervisor began referring to Tyndall as “gay boy,” “homo,” or “queer.”
Tyndall explained that he was heterosexual.
But that didn’t matter. The nicknames continued and even caught on with the rest of the staff.
The ribbing escalated. On one occasion, a male supervisor attempted to touch Tyndall’s groin while tickling him. That same man, along with Tyndall’s boss, repeatedly tried to punch Tyndall between the legs, purportedly as part of a running joke.
Tyndall graduated from high school and eventually became a full-time employee of Berlin Fire Company.
By this time, the name calling was an everyday occurrence. The boss’s ridicule also expanded. He provided commentary about how Tyndall’s wardrobe, car, mother, and even his diet all reflected Tyndall’s homosexuality.
The supervisor who had tickled Tyndall began suggesting that Tyndall perform sexual favors in order to get better shifts.
Tyndall complained up the chain of command at the firehouse but nothing changed. Finally, he took his concerns to the town administrator. There was an investigation, and the town assumed control of the fire department.
After that, Tyndall’s life at work became even more difficult. His coworkers ignored and isolated him. Tyndall alleges that they even refused to provide professional assistance when responding to emergency situations.
Tyndall complained to fire department staff. He was fired shortly thereafter.
The Court Weighs In
Tyndall spoke to an attorney and sued the company for sex discrimination.
The company attempted to have the case thrown out, stating that Tyndall’s claim was without merit because everyone knew that he wasn’t homosexual. The company’s lawyers stated that the conduct should simply be chalked up to workplace banter and horseplay.
The court refused to dismiss the case. It ruled that a jury could potentially conclude that the comments from Tyndall’s coworkers demonstrated their beliefs that he didn’t conform to the stereotypical male image.
Because of that, any discrimination that Tyndall experienced could be because of his sex.
The court ordered the case to proceed to a jury trial.
(The case discussed here is Tyndall v. Berlin Fire Co.)
What It Means to You
The takeaway for employees is this: Workplace banter can easily move into unlawful territory if one person is singled out.
No matter what your sexual preference is, being ridiculed and treated unfairly because of it (or people’s perceptions of it) is not anything you should have to put up with – especially while at work.
If you believe you’ve been discriminated against due to your sexual preference, sexual stereotypes, or other related issues, it’s a good idea to speak to an attorney.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (267) 273-1054 for a free consultation.