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Personality clash or gay bias? Courts decide

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in Discrimination and Harassment

In New York, employees are protected from discrimination based on their sexual orientation. Lawsuits alleging anti-gay bias are handled just like other employment discrimination cases, which means employees must show they were discriminated because of their sexual orientation.  

Just as in other discrimination cases, when the conflict is between supervisor and subordinate, courts try to sort out whether the problem is a case of personality conflict or sexual orientation discrimination. The more examples of specific incidents clearly tied to orientation an employee has, the better her chances of winning.

Recent case: Nancy Garside took a job as a financial analyst for a human-services nonprofit, where she was responsible for developing budgets as part of the organization’s efforts to secure additional work.

Garside is a lesbian. When interviewed, she wore a floral business suit, makeup and earrings. Once hired, she came to work without makeup and jewelry, and wore plain business suits and flat shoes. She also wore her hair very short. Her new supervisor, who had interviewed her, then told her that she might have trouble dealing with several other women working for the organization because she was perceived as “not a pretty girl.”

Garside interpreted the comment as harassment based on her sexual orientation. According to Garside, “not a pretty girl” is slang for a lesbian who has a “butch appearance.”

During her tenure with the organization, Garside claimed her supervisor treated her poorly, refused to speak with her, ordered her around during meetings and generally didn’t respect her.

Garside sued, alleging sexual orientation discrimination.

But the court tossed out the case, concluding this was more a case of personality conflict. (Garside v. Hillside Family of Agencies, No. 09-CV-6181, WD NY, 2011)

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