CLICK HERE to read the original article on Indy Star.
By Stephanie Wang
For her daily work commute, Angie Alexander got into her car, turned on the music and prayed:
Please allow me to handle what I’m going into.
She was an office assistant at a MedExpress Urgent Care on the Southside, where she felt over a year and a half that she was not treated like everybody else.
If her family brought her lunch, she said they had to walk in through the back entrance — not the front, like other families.
She was written up for bringing in her personal laptop to do homework during downtime — even though she said no one else received rebukes for studying.
Her coworkers wondered aloud how she could minister at church when she was married to a woman. Even though she asked for the time to worship, managers scheduled her for Sunday shifts — despite giving others time off, she said, to be with their children and husbands.
They called her “the lesbian.” “The gay preacher.”
What could she do? Say something, and she feared she might lose her job. Don’t say anything, and she would have to continue working in what she felt was an atmosphere of illegal harassment and workplace discrimination.
In the end, Alexander did speak out. And when she felt management failed to address her concerns, she filed one of the 17 discrimination complaints based on sexual orientation or gender identity handled last year by the Indianapolis-Marion County Office of Equal Opportunity.
People who question the need for legal protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers often say there’s no proof of that type of discrimination going on in Indiana. Such nondiscrimination laws, they say, would instead create more legal issues and pave the way to allow discrimination against evangelical Christians.
But a review of Indianapolis discrimination complaints shows a more complicated picture.
In Indianapolis, whose nondiscrimination ordinance includes sexual orientation and gender identity among 11 protected classes, nearly 1 in 5 complaints last year were based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Only two complaints were based on religion. And one of those was Alexander’s claim that her religious rights were abridged because of discrimination against her sexual orientation.
What’s more, the cases examined by The Star suggest that nondiscrimination ordinances don’t result in an excess of costly, business-killing legal judgments.
Whether race, religion or sexual orientation was the source, few of the cases are ever fully investigated — let alone proven as likely discrimination. Out of the 17 complaints last year relating to sexual orientation or gender identity, just one was determined to have “reasonable cause” to believe the ordinance was violated. Cases are much more often dismissed or privately reconciled.
The point of such laws, experts said, is not to punish businesses. Nor is it to win substantial financial redress for victims.
These ordinances cannot completely eliminate discrimination. But, experts say, the laws make a statement of equality. They encourage businesses to be more proactive about inclusion in order to avoid discrimination.
“Everybody deserves to be in a workplace where they can do their best work,” said Robert Dion, head of the political science department at the University of Evansville and chairman of the Evansville-Vanderburgh County Human Relations Commission. “The underlying notion is to be able to live without fear.”
A recent study conducted by The Williams Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles found that people call upon state protections for sexual orientation and gender identity just as often as they rely on the parts of the law that protect women and people of color.
And, in the case of women, the numbers in Indianapolis roughly bear that out.
In Indianapolis, people filed 17 complaints last year based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and 18 based on sex.
Complaints, which can be filed under more than one category, were most commonly about alleged racial discrimination, with 32 cases, and disability discrimination, with 27.
Under Indianapolis’ ordinance, a condo owner challenged a neighborhood association board that he said tried to prevent him from selling his property. The board officers called him lewd homophobic slurs, ignored requests to repair a fence and put down salt on all the icy sidewalks except his, the owner said, because of his marriage to another man.
“You have AIDS,” he recounted the treasurer saying to him.
One employee, afraid of losing his job, lied about his sexual orientation when his boss said he wouldn’t hire gay men. When his coworkers later found out the employee was gay, they called him “Mommy” and “honey.” He later lost his job without warning for supposedly violating a company policy, which he said he felt was a cover-up for more discrimination.
Some complaints came from people reporting unwanted sexual advances, such as a woman who worked as a hotel housekeeper and said her female supervisor slapped her backside when she bent over to clean a tub.
So far this year, six more cases of sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination have been filed.
Still, many experts say this isn’t perfect math. There’s no way to quantify how much discrimination happens locally, in part because discrimination of all kinds is under-reported. That could be because victims have to initiate complaints, they may not realize their situation may be discriminatory, they fear retaliation or they lack faith in receiving justice.
“We don’t know everything about what’s happening in the workplace,” Dion said. “We don’t know how pervasive discrimination is. And honestly, the number of complaints that come in aren’t always the best indicator of the underlying level of discrimination, because lots of people talk themselves out of filing a claim.”
Some opponents of LGBT rights say that expanding the state civil rights law would be overly punitive for businesses. Pastor Ron Johnson Jr., executive director of the Indiana Pastors Alliance, contends it would allow people to target — and even extort — Christian-run businesses with lawsuits.
“You’re going to have all kinds of lawsuits,” he said.
In a recently proposed Republican plan to add sexual orientation and gender identity to state civil rights law, “frivolous” claims could draw a $1,000 penalty.
Still, Johnson fears that broadening the civil rights law wouldn’t leave room for people to have different perspectives on sexuality. It would penalize people for holding deep-seated beliefs, and they wouldn’t have an ability to make a religious objection.
“The bottom line is, you will get sued,” he said, “and you’re going to have no basis for fighting it, because it will be the law at that point.”
“So basically you’re telling us,” Johnson added, “if we’re going to be bakers or be in the creative business or simply bring our Christian beliefs, we’re no longer welcome to do business in Indiana. That’s the message, loud and clear.”
Legal experts, however, say discrimination of any kind is difficult to prove. These days, experts say discrimination tends to be subtle.
“You don’t really find blatantly discriminatory policies anymore in reputable businesses,” Dion said.
If discriminatory behaviors are less obvious, how can you prove that you were passed over for a promotion, rejected by an apartment complex or turned away from a business — because of your skin color? Because of what you believe in? Because of who you love?
The picture is often murky. On both sides of these issues, attorneys agree that can be a tough case to make, especially in some cities where laws lack enforcement teeth. And many people use the word “discrimination” when it’s not actually illegal discrimination.
As explained by Indianapolis attorney Robin Clay of Curlin & Clay Law: “My motto is, everything that’s unfair is not illegal. Somebody’s not nice to you? They don’t have to be.”
Generally, it’s not illegal, for example, to simply say something derogatory or offensive. It’s also not illegal to voice your personal beliefs on marriage or sexuality.
It becomes illegal if it rises to the level of creating a hostile workplace or affecting employment decisions. It’s illegal if you have to put up with harassment in order to keep your job.
Discrimination can be proven if victims can show they were treated differently from someone outside of their protected class — known as disparate treatment.
But, in the absence of emails, witnesses or other documentation, “it’s hard to prove what was in someone’s mind,” said Susan W. Kline, a labor and employment group partner at Faegre Baker Daniels.
With that tough burden of proof, most cases are not formally ruled as discriminatory. Still, parties are encouraged to come to settlement agreements to try to right situations.
Alexander, for example, settled her case in lieu of a full investigation.
MedExpress, Alexander said, paid her four months’ salary, in exchange for leaving her job. The company did not return a call for comment for this story.
Still, she was left unsatisfied. She said she felt she had to file the complaint, and yet it seemed, in a way, that doing so forced her out of a job. How could she go back to work for a company after taking her case to the city? Back to a company that she felt didn’t want to deal with her complaints?
A settlement didn’t change that she felt mistreated. And the problems she encountered at work had ramifications that rippled through even after her case closed.
Leaving the job interrupted her career. She couldn’t find another job for months afterward.
All she had worked for — and all that she had put up with, she said — was in vain.
The larger benefit of nondiscrimination protections comes as companies adopt policies to comply with the law.
Kline said she has recently started advising more clients on instituting equitable and inclusive policies for gay and transgender employees.
Some companies, such as Eli Lilly and Co., say they have long had such policies because they want to attract diverse talent. Others may be looking into such policies as more Indiana communities began this year to adopt such policies.
And even though the state law does not include LGBT protections, federal agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have started to interpret guidelines in ways that can cover gay and transgender people.
“While I understand you feel you ought to be able to run your own business the way you want, consistent with your beliefs,” Kline said, “unless you’re a religious organization with some exceptions, you have to run your business in a way that complies with the law. You would just have to help folks understand this is not any commentary on their own faith or moral view.”
But in the end, as one local human rights director put it, local laws are mostly reactive and don’t represent a preventative solution.
What that means is that even in cities like Indianapolis, people are still enduring hateful behavior directed at them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Take, for example, Darin Byerley, who says someone with power who didn’t like gay people brought false allegations against him. “My whole world,” he said, “crumbled over.”
An internal investigation accused Byerley, a four-year contracted correctional officer, of having an inappropriate sexual relationship with a male inmate in a Marion County jail.
He was fired.
But he said nothing like that ever happened.
According to Byerley, the internal affairs officer who investigated him often said — on the clock and in front of others — that he was “uncomfortable around gay people,” and knew Byerley was gay.
Byerley brought his case to the city. His former employer, Corrections Corporation of America, didn’t cooperate in the city’s investigation, according to documents. The company also did not return a call for comment on this story.
His was the only sexual orientation or gender identity case last year ruled to have “reasonable cause” that unlawful discrimination may have occurred. The city is endeavoring to resolve the issue by facilitating an agreement between Byerley and the company.
But in the meantime, it’s been nearly two years since 40-year-old Byerley, a Greenwood resident, was dismissed from his job. Because of the allegation against him, he said he also lost another job working as a reserve police officer for the town of Homecroft.
He went back to managing warehouses but lost that job amid layoffs. He’s still unemployed. He can’t afford to hire a lawyer to pursue his case.
“Somebody needs to hold them accountable,” Byerley said. “You can’t just destroy a person’s life and have nothing happen.”SHARE THIS STORY