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BUSINESS PULSE: A SPECIAL REPORT : DISCRIMINATION : Bias in the Workplace: It's Common, Gays Say

May 22, 1990|GREGORY CROUCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For six years, she worked her way up the corporate ladder to become chief spokeswoman at one of Orange County's largest hospitals.

She was one of the hospital's most visible employees, routinely coordinating press coverage of noteworthy births, deaths and major surgeries.

And then the woman reached a milestone of her own. She got fired.

She alleged in a 1987 lawsuit against the hospital that she was fired "for an arbitrary and non-job-related reason, i.e. sexual orientation."

Her boss, she alleged, had a "personal dislike for her lifestyle and sexual orientation" as a lesbian.

The hospital denied the allegations, saying the woman was fired for "a lack of management skills."

Eighteen months ago, the case was settled out of court.

The employee asked that her name not be used--even though it is in public records--because she is afraid disclosure that she is a lesbian might cause problems at her new job.

The lawsuit is an unusual glimpse into something that gays say goes on all the time: discrimination and harassment in the workplace. They cite everything from ugly epithets repeated throughout the office to medical benefits that do not extend to same-sex lovers.

"Faggot jokes at the water cooler are still an accepted part of corporate American culture," said Arthur Lazere, former writer of a gay-oriented column entitled On the Job. "People who would never dream of discriminating in any other area still think it's OK to have a bias regarding sexual orientation."

In the Times Orange County Poll, 1% of the respondents said they had been a target of discrimination at their job because of their sexual orientation. That is equal to the number who complained of age discrimination.

The response takes on greater significance in that it is estimated by some experts that only about 10% of the nation's total population is gay.

"There's pervasive discrimination," said Joel J. Loquvam, a gay civil rights lawyer in Santa Ana. "We easily get one phone call a week from an employee who believes he or she has been discriminated against on the basis of his or her sexual orientation. That's a pretty sizable number of people for one law firm."

These bias complaints in the Orange County workplace did not result in lawsuits, because those complaining did not want to go public.:

* A savings and loan employee was fired despite excellent job evaluations. "His work environment was openly hostile to homosexuals, with anti-gay statements being made in his presence repeatedly," Loquvam said. "My client was told he needed a wife and children to be more stable and advance."

* An employee at a real estate development company took his male lover to several company functions. "He was told he couldn't do that any more because the company had an image to uphold," Loquvam said. "Furthermore, if word of his homosexuality was known beyond the front door of the company, there were numerous opportunities he should go pursue. In other words, if he was known to be out (publicly gay), he could take a hike."

Most of the county's largest employers do not prohibit bias against gays. Through an informal survey of large private employers, company officials repeatedly said that sexual orientation is a private matter and that gays do not need the anti-discrimination policies afforded to ethnic and racial minorities.

"People I talked to say it has not become an issue," said Richard Dore, spokesman for Orange County's biggest employer, Hughes Aircraft Co.

The aerospace giant--like all but one of the 10 largest employers in the area--does not include sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy. (Pacific Bell has a sexual-orientation policy prohibiting bias against gays but is required to do so under a state law regulating public utilities.)

Nationally, an increasing number of large corporations are including sexual orientation in equal employment opportunity statements. AT&T, IBM and Apple Computer are a few examples. Yale University no longer allows a company to recruit at its law school unless it has such a provision.

But locally, few companies have followed the trend.

"We will not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, creed, all the normal things, but there is no mention of gays in there," Dore of Hughes said. "The company does not feel it is necessary."

Disneyland said it too does not discriminate against gays but has not included sexual orientation in its employment policy because the federal and state governments do not require that.

Just what legal remedies are available depends on whether an employee is open about being gay.

Openly gay employees can sue under the state Labor Code's provisions on political activity. The California Supreme Court in the late 1970s ruled that coming out at work is a political activity that is a protected right of all employees.

However, the vast majority of gays do not publicize their sexual orientation on the job, and they are not protected.

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