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Signal Hill Man Says Chain Fired Him for Being Homosexual : Gays Threaten Stereo Store Boycott

April 25, 1985|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

To hear Joe Spitale tell it, he was a crack salesman who was fired from his job for being homosexual. But to Michael Pastori, senior vice president of operations for The Federated Group, where Spitale worked, the former employee was an inconsistent salesman who was laid off for low sales.

Whatever the truth, Spitale filed a $10-million lawsuit in Long Beach Superior Court in February charging Federated with slander, firing him without cause and violating his civil rights, among other allegations. And now the Lambda Democratic Club, a gay activist group in Long Beach with 150 members, is threatening a boycott of the chain of stereo and home electronics stores unless its demands are met.

Called Civil Rights Issue

"We see it as a civil rights issue," said Lorna Albertsen, the president of Lambda, who signed a letter to The Federated Group last week demanding an end to what she called the company's anti-gay policies. "Gay people deserve the same employment rights as anyone else."

In the letter, Lambda demands a company-wide nondiscrimination policy toward employees and in advertising and a grievance procedure for employees. If the company's response to the letter is "unsatisfactory," she said, her group will initiate a boycott of Federated's 29 stores in California and Arizona.

Albertsen said the group would try to work through the state Democratic Party and gay rights organizations. Such a move could have serious economic repercussions, she said, because of the strong buying power of gays throughout the state.

Officials Call Charges False

But officials of the stereo chain, interviewed this week, said the suit's charges are false. Spitale was not discriminated against for any reason, they said, and the company has never discriminated against gays.

"The complaint they (Lambda) base their inquiry on is just unfounded," Pastori said.

Regarding the threatened boycott, company chairman Wilfred Schwartz said, "In this country one is presumed innocent until proven guilty."

The controversy began about a year after Spitale, 35, of Signal Hill, a former Las Vegas policeman, began working in the chain's North Long Beach store in 1983. For most of that time he had been a top salesman, he said, at one point even winning a weeklong Caribbean cruise for finishing first in a sales contest.

Then things began to happen.

During an investigation of suspected theft, Spitale's suit says, he and several other employees were given polygraph exams. The first time he was asked to take the lie detector test, it merely upset him, he said. The second time, offended at the tenor of the questions, he ceased cooperating midway through.

Thus began what Spitale claims in his suit was two months of harassment during which security personnel allegedly used the fact of his homosexuality, which they discovered in the course of their investigation, to isolate him from other employees and cause him "extreme emotional stress."

"It got so bad that nobody wanted to go to lunch with me," Spitale said in a recent interview at a Signal Hill restaurant.

Among other things, the suit claims, security personnel and others spread false rumors among fellow employees that Spitale was a thief, that he had used and sold illegal drugs on the premises, that he had had sex with other male employees, that he was having an affair with a co-worker and that he had sexually harassed others in an attempt to seduce them.

"I went to pieces," Spitale recalled. "I had really done something in this store--I was a star--and all of a sudden the rug was pulled out from under me and I was a nothing."

Eventually the situation became so bad, he said, that he requested and received a transfer from the store in Long Beach to the company's Torrance store.

Because supervisors failed to give him "reasonable support services," the suit contends, his sales suffered. Among other things, according to the suit, they "diverted" customers from Spitale by wrongly informing them that he was unable to provide qualified service and deprived him of sales support by telling fellow employees of his sexual orientation.

When he was finally laid off, superiors said it was for lack of productivity, said Pastori.

"Spitale was with us for 18 months," Pastori said. "At times his performance was exceptional, at times it was not."

Pastori said he had signed at least one letter commending Spitale for his efforts and believed the ex-employee had won at least one sales contest.

But at the time of the layoff, he said, Spitale "was not a leader in the sales department."

"His manager noted that his performance was weak in the (Torrance) store," Pastori said, "and recommended that he be considered for rehire in a smaller store" should an opening occur.

Spitale believes differently. "I was fired because I was gay," he said.

Letter Published

After filing the suit, he expressed his outrage in a letter to Frontiers, a Los Angeles publication widely circulated among gays. One result was an offer of support from Lambda.

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