January 24, 2012 at 7:00 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Lesbian who fought workplace discrimination ‘honored’ to attend SOTU

Lorelei Kilker (left) with her partner Sara Nelson (photo courtesy Kilker)

The invitation to witness the State of the Union address on Tuesday alongside first lady Michelle Obama came as a surprise to a lesbian analytical chemist who last year fought alleged workplace sex discrimination.

In an interview with the Washington Blade, Lorelei Kilker, 31, of Brighton, Colo., said she learned she was invited to attend the speech upon receiving a call from a White House official on Sunday.

“It was a Sunday and the middle of the day,” she said with a laugh. “They left a message on my phone from someone who said, ‘This is the White House.’ I was very shocked. I didn’t think that anything like this would happen. I was honored and shocked.”

One of a handful of guests that have been selected to sit in the first lady’s box in the House gallery, Kilker will watch President Obama deliver his speech at 9 p.m. before a joint session of Congress.

Kilker described the feeling of being able to sit next to first lady Michelle Obama to watch the president as he gives his speech as “overwhelming.”

“You see the president and you see the first lady on TV,” Kilker said. “You recognize them, but I never in a million years would have thought I would have the opportunity to see them in person. It’s pretty great.”

Kilker said she’ll be traveling to D.C. with her partner of three-and-a-half years, Sarah Nelson, who’s 33 and works at Dick’s Sporting Goods. They have two children, ages four and seven. However, Kilker will be attending the speech on her own.

The message that Kilker hopes to hear from President Obama on Tuesday night: “getting America back together, becoming united.”

Asked whether she’d like to hear something from Obama on LGBT issues, such as an endorsement of same-sex marriage, Kilker replied, “I think that that’s important. There have been steps, but we need something stronger.”

What would Kilker want to say to Michelle Obama if they have an opportunity to chat? Kilker said she’d commend the first lady for being an admirable person.

“The only thing I would say to her is that I think she’s a positive and strong female role model, and the Obama administration has done a lot for civil rights as opposed to other administrations,” Kilker said.

Kilker was invited to attend the State of the Union address after she received monetary relief in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission case that investigated alleged sex discrimination she faced at while employed at the Western Sugar Cooperative.

According to an EEOC statement from when the case was resolved in October, EEOC found Western Sugar denied women training and promotions, gave them less desirable work assignments and segregated positions by gender at its Ft. Morgan, Colo., facility. Additionally, the company allegedly denied year-round employment and paid lower wages to women.

Western Sugar has denied any wrongdoing and maintains it’s an equal opportunity employer, but agreed to resolve the matter through EEOC’s reconciliation process.

But Kilker contends that women “had certain jobs they were allowed to have, and there were certain jobs that they were not allowed to have.”

“The jobs that women had were mediocre, they paid less,” Kilker said. “There was really no opportunity for advancement. The male jobs were higher-wage, promotions, things like that.”

When she tried to enter one of these “male jobs,” Kilker said she was repeatedly denied the opportunity despite her record.

“The management would come up to me and promise me that they were going to do this, they were going to do this,” Kilker said. “Then, they would go back and say, ‘No we’re not going to do this. No we’re not going to this. We changed our mind.”

Additionally, Kilker said management at the company singled her out for sexual harassment that made her “working life miserable” until she eventually quit her job.

“My family received phone calls saying that I was doing sexual activities in order to do jobs, and things like that,” Kilker said. “It got pretty disgusting.”

Kilker said the discrimination she faced was the result of her gender and not her sexual orientation. She said she doesn’t believe her former employer knew she was a lesbian.

On the grounds that the alleged discrimination was in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Kilker filed charges on behalf of herself and other women at the company.

As a result of arrangements that were achieved through a cooperative process between the employer and EEOC, Kilker and others involved in the class-action case received $550,000 in relief. Further, Western Sugar agreed to remedial relief such as training for all employees and appointed an internal representative who’ll report to the EEOC to monitor the company’s employment practices for the next three years.

Kilker said she received “the majority share” of the $550,000, although she couldn’t recall the exact portion of that amount she received.

“I was so happy,” Kilker. “It had taken so many years that I just had kind of gotten to the point where I was over it. And then, the investigator at the EEOC really got into it, and it was just amazing how far they came with that.”

According to the White House, EEOC has obtained almost $50 million in monetary relief through administrative enforcement for victims of sex-based wage discrimination since the creation of the President’s Equal Pay Task Force in January 2010. Additionally, EEOC obtained changes to workplace practices that benefit more than 250,000 workers, and filed five cases including sex-based wage discrimination claims.

Although EEOC was able to resolve the issue, Kilker said more advancements are necessary to protect workers against discrimination.

Kilker said she supports the idea of Obama taking action administratively to bar discrimination in the workplace. Some LGBT rights advocates have urged the president to issue an executive order preventing federal dollars from going to companies without LGBT-inclusive workplace non-discrimination protections.

“I think that’s a great idea,” Kilker said. “It’s just another step in the right direction, and that’s what we need.”

But Kilker won’t be the only LGBT person attending the State of the Union. The other lesbian invitee is Air Force Col. Ginger Wallace, who’s 43 and lives in McLean, Va. She’s currently training to deploy to Afghanistan in the spring through the Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands program.

The Washington Blade reported in December on Wallace’s partner Kathy Knopf participating in her “pinning-on” promotion ceremony, the first reported instance of such an event happening with a same-sex partner since the lifting of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

On Tuesday, Wallace told the Blade that she and her partner are “honored and humbled” to represent LGBT people and families who’ve served in the armed forces.

“We’re just amazed that we were chosen to do that,” Wallace said. “We’re just humbled to represent this unique section of people. There are really are a lot of exceptional gays and lesbians who serve in our military.”

If she has an opportunity to speak with Michelle Obama, Wallace said she’d thank the first lady — as well as second lady Jill Biden — for their work leading the national campaign called “Joining Forces,” which was launched in April to support military families through public service outreach and partnerships.

“They have worked tirelessly to increase support for military families, ensure that military families are taken care of,” Wallace said. “That’s important work, especially today. After 10 years of conflict, 10 years of deployment — that’s taken its toll.”

Wallace said she hopes Obama during his speech will the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as one of the accomplishments of his administration.

“I hope it is highlighted as a success, and I think, more importantly, I hope it is received by the audience as a success,” Wallace said. “I hope this is seen as the success I think the administration thinks it is.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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