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San Diego Firemen Win Gay Pride Harassment Appeal

By L.K. Regan

In 2007, the San Diego fire department sent an engine crew to represent the department in the city's annual gay pride parade. The problem was that several of the firefighters didn't want to go, and felt they were harassed at the parade. They sued, and won a verdict in a lower court. The city appealed—and now has lost that appeal, with a half a million additional dollars added to its fine.

The engine crew from San Diego's heavily-gay Hillcrest neighborhood were ordered to fill in at the 2007 gay pride parade for another team that had earlier volunteered but then cancelled (nothing obviously sinister—their chief's mother had died, and they wanted to go to the funeral). The problem here is "ordered"—the fire department compelled the crew's attendance at gay pride, where ordinarily they sought volunteers.

By the next year the department had amended its rules so that only volunteers would be part of the parade—but that was not enough to appease the four members of the 2007 engine crew who felt they had been sexually harassed. From the catcalls to the "simulated sex acts" they witnessed (as their statement claimed), Chad Allison, Jason Hewitt, John Ghiotto and Alexander Kane felt they had been subjected to a hostile work environment. They claimed that they had suffered as a result a range of ailments, literally from one end (headaches) to the other (irritable bowel syndrome).

A California court in 2009 granted the men a total of $34,000—far less than the million dollars each that their lawyers had demanded in an earlier trial (that jury was hung). Now, the award amount has been substantially increased. A three-judge appellate panel has not only upheld the lower court's verdict, it has also awarded the firefighters more than half a million additional dollars in legal costs. The firefighters say that they are delighted—mostly with the way that this has cost the fire department. "I’m happy with the ruling," said plaintiff John Ghiotto. "The amount of money the city has spent on this is amazing—I’ll bet it’s in the millions by now." And, he added, "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."