A former New York probationary firefighter has filed a federal lawsuit against the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) for allegedly subjecting him to bullying, hazing, homophobia and sexual harassment. His case reminds us of this startling fact: A majority of men sexually harassed in the workplace are actually harassed by homophobic straight men.
The firefighter claims that his fellow firefighters at Tribeca’s Ladder 1/Engine 7 firehouse repeatedly called him “a closet homo” and a “bitch.” In addition to allegedly covering his car in peanut butter, toilet paper and nails, he claims his colleagues coerced him to go to a strip club and have sex with one of the dancers. When he refused, his colleagues reportedly called him a “loser” and a “faggot.”
The FDNY fired him on Dec. 21, 2016 for a “faulty evaluation” just seven days before he would’ve completed probation to become a full-fledged firefighter. He is now suing for unspecified damages.
The media hasn’t reported on the firefighter’s sexual orientation, but it doesn’t really matter because a 1998 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services found Title VII’s protection against workplace discrimination “because of sex” applied to workplace harassment involving members of the same sex. Furthermore, the Supreme Court said sexual harassment claims don’t have to involve “sexual desire.”
Since that ruling, the number of men filing sexual harassment claims has risen. In 2016, for example, approximately 1,166 men filed sexual harassment claims with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Although the EEOC doesn’t say how many of the alleged harassers of men also are male, EEOC spokesman David Grinberg says it’s rare for men to file such charges against a female coworker or supervisor. Thus, a majority of the workplace sexual harassment cases filed with the EEOC involved male-on-male sexual harassment.
Furthermore, according to Riki Wilchins — former executive director of the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition, a now defunct LGBT rights organization in Washington, DC — the aggressors and victims of male-on-male workplace sexual harassment are usually heterosexual.
“This kind of harassment has always taken place in the workplace,” Wilchins says. “But the kind of abrasive, sexualized horseplay that might have been acceptable 10 years ago is actionable today. More males realize they don’t have to take it.”
Wilchins continues, “We assume that the vast majority of the cases are not individuals who are necessarily gay or transgender, but they’re in situations where there are these abrasive codes of masculinity to which men are expected to live up to.”
The high number of sexual harassment claims filed by men are evidence that men “are increasingly being harassed by male co-workers and supervisors,” says Sally Abrahamson, an LGBTQ discrimination and class action employment attorney in Washington DC.
Abrahamson explains, “Sexual harassment can consist of unwelcomed offensive conduct such as a man being teased for being gay or being perceived as gay based on sex-stereotypes of how a man should or should not act.”
The employment law firm PBLSH says, “It is likely that the cases filed with the EEOC represent just a portion of the total number of men who are sexually harassed at work,” meaning that problem is likely much worse than the thousands of annual sexual harassment filings at the EEOC suggest.
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