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Pride and Prejudice: Firemen Win Verdict For Pride Parade "Harassment"

By L. K. Regan

One person's pride is another's harassment. So ruled a California court this week in response to a lawsuit brought by four firefighters who sued the city of San Diego over their experiences while riding a fire engine in that city's 2007 gay pride parade. We'd like to know what you think: can witnessing a gay pride parade be harassment? What about the treatment that the plaintiffs say they endured—these were firemen on a big, red fire engine, after all. Let's get the facts, and then take a poll!

The firemen's case sought to define the line between the fire department's community outreach and the individual firemen's perception of harassment. The San Diego Fire Department routinely participates in the city's annual gay pride parade. In 2007, a particular engine crew had volunteered to ride their fire engine in the parade, representing the department as a whole. But the mother of that crew's chief died just before the parade, and the volunteer crew bowed out. According to the firefighters' lawyer, the department did not even look for further volunteers at this point, but instead assigned the job to the engine crew from Hillcrest, the largely gay neighborhood that hosts the parade. According to the firemen's lawyer, the four men expressed their unwillingness to take the assignment, but were brushed off by the department. Days later, they found themselves on their engine, in the middle of the annual gay pride parade.

In closing arguments, Charles LiMandri, the lawyer for the four firefighters—who are Alex Kane, Chad Allison, John Ghiotto, and Jason Hewitt—said that his clients had experienced sexually explicit gestures and verbal statements directed at them, and had been forced to watch nearly-nude men and women simulating sex acts. According to the lawyer, the fire department was fully aware of, as he put it, "what goes on there," and by making attendance mandatory, had knowingly put his clients in a hostile work environment. The city, in turn, pointed out that, while the firefighters had expressed discomfort at being in the parade, they did not complain of harassment at the time. And, fire chief Tracy Jarman said, the department both apologized and promised to use volunteers exclusively in future pride parades.

The firefighters' case has had an airing in court before; late last year, jurors were hung on the case, perhaps because of the size of the claim: LiMandri had asked for up to one million dollars per client as damages. This time, the lawyer did not ask for a specific amount, and the four were awarded 34,000 dollars each. Whether they will actually receive that money remains to be seen: the city plans to appeal the verdict.

All of this begs the question: who's in the right here? The fire department, which wants to reach out to the gay community and build trust between city and citizens? The firefighters, who feel uncomfortable in the often sexually explicit atmosphere of a gay pride parade? What about the parades themselves -- does that atmosphere alienate potential gay allies, or is it a free expression of the community's diversity? As employers reach out more and more to the gay community through our most public moment—the pride parades—these questions will only grow more pressing. In the meantime, take our poll and tell us what you think: are the firefighters entitled to this verdict?