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Four firefighters sue San Diego

The suit contends they were sexually harassed at the gay pride parade they were forced to ride in by a superior.

September 15, 2008|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Four San Diego firefighters are suing the city government for damages because they were allegedly sexually harassed while participating involuntarily in the 2007 gay pride parade.

The four say they were ordered to drive their firetruck in the three-hour parade even though firefighters at previous parades had been subjected to catcalls and sexually suggestive comments by parade watchers. The trial is scheduled to begin today.

The mandatory participation order was part of a policy by Fire Chief Tracy Jarman, according to the firefighters' attorney, Charles LiMandri. Jarman, a lesbian, marched in the parade, which drew a crowd estimated at 150,000 to Hillcrest, a neighborhood with a large gay population.

"This is not an anti-gay thing," LiMandri said. "These guys have served the Hillcrest community for years with dignity and honor. They just feel firefighters should not be forced to participate in a parade where firefighters have been harassed in the past."

City Atty. Michael Aguirre, who is representing the city and the Fire-Rescue Department, says the firefighters are "required to serve the community without discrimination as to sexual orientation."

Riding on a firetruck during the gay pride parade is no different than other public-relations duties that firefighters perform as part of their job, such as taking firetrucks to schools, Aguirre argued in a court brief.

But one of the firefighters alleges that after protesting the parade assignment, he was given an unsatisfactory job rating by a "lesbian battalion chief," LiMandri said.

The four, John Ghiotto, Chad Allison, Jason Hewitt and Alexander Kane, are seeking damages and reimbursement for therapy sessions and attorneys' fees. Court papers do not mention a dollar figure, but published reports based on settlement negotiations suggest the four are seeking $3 million.

The parade is "a sexually licentious event, where raucous and lewd behavior, conduct and dress is permitted," according to the firefighters' lawsuit.

To buttress that contention, pictures were submitted to the court showing men in skimpy clothing riding some of the floats. The lawsuit includes a list of the taunts and sexually aggressive comments allegedly hurled at the firefighters.

The firefighters allege they were ordered to ride their truck in the parade when not enough firefighters volunteered. Also in the parade were several dozen San Diego officials, police officers and other employees, including the city attorney.

Along with the sexual harassment contention, the lawsuit also alleges that the gay pride parade should be seen as a political event, "designed to advocate for the civil rights of homosexuals, and in recent years to promote the controversial concept of gay marriage." By forcing the firefighters to participate in the parade, the suit contends, the city was improperly recruiting them to support a political cause.

Aguirre, in a court brief, suggested that if the firefighters were feeling harassed, it was because of the negative reaction their lawsuit has garnered from the public and colleagues, including allegations the four are "money-grubbers."

Among other cases, Aguirre cited a lawsuit by a comedy writer's assistant from the television show "Friends" who said the "sexually coarse and vulgar language" of the writers amounted to harassment. The lawsuit failed, Aguirre said, because lewd talk alone is not sufficient to prove harassment.

The firefighters' case has been covered closely by both gay and Catholic publications. Aguirre, locked in a tough reelection campaign, has told reporters he may represent the city in court.

The Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center, which is involved in numerous cases across the country involving religious issues, is backing the firefighters. LiMandri of Rancho Santa Fe is the center's West Coast director.

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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