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Gay coach fired at VCU

Advocates renew call for Obama exec order on workplace bias

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James Finley, VCU, ENDA, Employment Non-Discrimination Act, gay news, Washington Blade, Virginia Commonwealth University
James Finley, VCU, ENDA, Employment Non-Discrimination Act, gay news, Washington Blade, Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU women’s volleyball coach James Finley says he was fired because he’s gay. (Photo courtesy of Finley)

A women’s volleyball coach at Virginia Commonwealth University, who says he was fired last month because he’s gay, would have a far better chance of getting his job back if President Obama had issued a non-discrimination executive order for federal contractors.

That’s the assessment of Tico Almeida, president of the national LGBT advocacy group Freedom to Work.

“If the executive order were already in place, Coach [James] Finley could have the Department of Labor investigate whether federal contractor VCU allowed anti-gay animus to overshadow the fact that he led his team to a 25-6 winning record this season as well as a perfect graduation rate for his student athletes,” Almeida told the Blade in a statement.

Almeida said VCU would be a prime target for a discrimination investigation under such an executive order because it has received more than $40 million in contracts in recent years from such federal agencies as the National Institutes of Health, the Social Security Administration, and the Department of Defense.

“President Obama should sign the executive order today because every day that passes is another day in which taxpayer money can be squandered on anti-LGBT workplace harassment and discrimination,” he said.

Finley, 52, told the Blade he learned of his dismissal on Nov. 19 when the university’s recently hired athletic director, Ed McLaughlin, informed him he decided not to renew Finley’s contract as coach.

He said he filed a discrimination complaint with the university’s diversity office. The university’s personnel policy bans discrimination based on sexual orientation. A VCU spokesperson said the office has 45 days to investigate the complaint under university rules.

Another university spokesperson, Pamela Lepley, told Richmond news media outlets that McLaughlin’s decision not to renew Finley’s contract was “in compliance with appropriate VCU employment practices and policies.”

In his own statement, McLaughlin said he did not base his action on the fact that Finley is gay.

“It is unfortunate that Mr. Finley feels the decision not to renew his contract was based on anything other than previously stated concerns about the volleyball program,” he said.

Finley told the Blade McLaughlin told him his reason for not renewing the contract was a desire to take the volleyball program in a “different direction” in order to lift the program to “an elite level.”

Finley and his husband, John Sternlicht, an attorney, consider McLaughlin’s rationale for not renewing Finley’s contract a thinly veiled pretext.

The two say they believe the true motive was McLaughlin’s unwillingness to retain an openly gay man as coach of the VCU women’s volleyball team, despite the fact that Finley is credited by students, other coaches, and sports writers with having vastly improved the team and inspired its women players during his eight-year tenure as coach.

“The reality is they were below 500 [in their win-loss record] for 14 straight years prior to me coming here,” Finley said in a telephone interview.

In the years in which he served as coach, the team has had the highest winning percentage in women’s volleyball at VCU in the previous 20 years, he said.

“We had 25 wins with only six losses,” he said in discussing the current year. “We had our highest national ranking in program history.”

According to Finley, many university officials, students, and the athletic department staff have been fully accepting of him and Sternlicht. Many of his colleagues attended his and Sternlicht’s wedding celebration last year, he said

With that as a backdrop, Finley and Sterlicht said McLaughlin remained distant and unsupportive of Finley since the time McLaughlin was hired as athletic director in July of this year.

He never attended any of the women’s volleyball games at the university’s home court, never congratulated him or the players for their successful season, and appeared to turn and walk in another direction whenever the two crossed paths on campus, said Finley.

Sternlicht said evidence of anti-gay animus surfaced when it became known last month that McLaughlin demoted a woman staffer who was the only other out gay person in the athletic department.

According to the Commonwealth Times, Pat Stauffer, a 30-year employee at the VCU Athletics Department, was stripped of her title as Senior Women’s Administrator and given the new title of Senior Associate Athletic Director for Sport Administration.

Finley said any doubt about McLaughlin’s motive for firing him vanished in his own mind and in that of his supporters when his volleyball players told him McLaughlin said the university wants a coach who would “represent the university well.”

“What he was saying is I, as a gay man, can’t represent the university or the athletic program in a positive way,” Finley said.

Finley’s dismissal comes at a time when LGBT advocates in Virginia say they are uncertain over whether sexual orientation non-discrimination policies adopted by the state’s universities and colleges, including VCU, can be enforced.

Last year, Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli said the universities didn’t have legal standing to adopt such policies because sexual orientation discrimination is not prohibited under Virginia law.

For more than a year, Almeida and other LGBT advocates have been urging President Obama to sign an executive order requiring companies and other entities such as universities that receive federal contracts to adopt internal personnel policies banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Existing federal civil rights laws already ban employment discrimination based on race, religion, sex and ethnicity, but those laws don’t apply to LGBT people. A bill pending in Congress known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, would add similar protections for LGBT people in federal law.

But ENDA remains stalled in the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, and Capitol Hill observers say it has no chance of passing unless Democrats regain control of the House in the 2014 elections.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Phil Reese

    December 6, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    Unbelievable.

  2. brian

    December 10, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    “If the executive order were already in place, Coach [James] Finley could have the Department of Labor investigate whether federal contractor VCU allowed anti-gay animus to overshadow the fact that he led his team to a 25-6 winning record this season as well as a perfect graduation rate for his student athletes,” Almeida told the Blade in a statement.
    ********
    Almeida is exactly right.

    And the potential of that kind of enforcement action against discriminators– enabled by a Presidential EO– has an enormously positive ripple effect on all those entities– both public and private– who also do business with the contractor found to be discriminating. The word gets spread quickly– discrimination is simply bad for business.

    We’ve already seen how Obama EO’s regarding hospital and health care discrimination have promptly and radically improved employment and treatment non-discrimination policies in places far more conservative than Richmond.

    President Obama should start laying the PR groundwork now for a federal contractor EO– within a few months at the latest.

    The President’s failure to do so seriously threatens ENDA’s passage on the HIll. Why should Congress act on ENDA when the president has not done the minimum of which he is easily capable of implementing with an EO?

    The Obama Administration is really sending a de facto ‘back door’ message to Congress…
    “Despite what I say publicly to you all, I’m not all that concerned about LGBT workplace discrimination.”

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In plea deal, D.C. trans woman’s killers could be free in 3 years

Two in 2016 killing of Dee Dee Dodds guilty of voluntary manslaughter

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Deeniquia Dodds, gay news, Washington Blade
Deeniquia ‘Dee Dee’ Dodds was killed on July 4, 2016. (Photo via Facebook)

A D.C. LGBTQ anti-violence group will be submitting a community impact statement for a D.C. Superior Court judge scheduled to sentence two men on Dec. 10 for the July 4, 2016, shooting death of transgender woman Deeniquia “Dee Dee” Dodds in a case D.C. police listed as a hate crime.

Stephania Mahdi, chair of the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community’s Anti-Violence Project, told the Washington Blade the project has been in contact with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for D.C., which is prosecuting the case against the two defendants set to be sentenced this week, to arrange for the submission of a statement on the impact the murder of Dodds has had on the community.

The impact statement would also apply to the sentencing of two other men charged in the Dodds murder case who are scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 20.

The Dec. 10 sentencing for Jolonta Little, 30, and Monte T. Johnson, 25, was set to take place a little over two months after Little and Johnson pleaded guilty on Sept. 30 to a single count of voluntary manslaughter as part of a plea bargain deal offered by prosecutors.

In exchange for the guilty plea for voluntary manslaughter, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed to drop the charge of first-degree murder while armed originally brought against the two men. The plea agreement also called for dropping additional charges against them in connection with the Dodds murder, including robbery while armed, possession of a firearm during a crime of violence, and unlawful possession of a firearm.

In addition, the plea agreement includes a promise by prosecutors to ask D.C. Superior Court Judge Milton C. Lee, who is presiding over the case, to issue a sentence of eight years in prison for both men. Under the D.C. criminal code, a conviction on a voluntary manslaughter charge carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

Johnson has been held without bond for five years and three months since his arrest in the Dodds case in September 2016. Little has been held without bond since his arrest for the Dodds murder in February 2017. Courthouse observers say that judges almost always give defendants credit for time served prior to their sentencing, a development that would likely result in the two men being released in about three years.

The plea deal for the two men came two and a half years after a D.C. Superior Court jury became deadlocked and could not reach a verdict on the first-degree murder charges against Johnson and Little following a month-long trial, prompting Judge Lee to declare a mistrial on March 6, 2019.

The two other men charged in Dodds’ murder, Shareem Hall, 27, and his brother, Cyheme Hall, 25, accepted a separate plea bargain offer by prosecutors shortly before the start of the 2019 trial in which they pled guilty to second-degree murder. Both testified at Johnson and Little’s the trial as government witnesses.

In dramatic testimony, Cyheme Hall told the jury that it was Johnson who fatally shot Dodds in the neck at point blank range after he said she grabbed the barrel of Johnson’s handgun as Johnson and Hall attempted to rob her on Division Ave., N.E., near where she lived. Hall testified that the plan among the four men to rob Dodds did not include the intent to kill her.

In his testimony, Hall said that on the day of Dodd’s murder, he and the other three men made plans to commit armed robberies for cash in areas of D.C. where trans women, some of whom were sex workers, congregated. He testified that the four men got into a car driven by Little and searched the streets for victims they didn’t expect to offer resistance.

D.C. police and the U.S. Attorney’s office initially designated the murder charge against Little and Johnson as an anti-trans hate crime offense based on findings by homicide detectives that the men were targeting trans women for armed robberies. But during Johnson and Little’s trial, Judge Lee dismissed the hate crime designation at the request of defense attorneys on grounds that there was insufficient evidence to support a hate crime designation.

At the request of prosecutors, Judge Lee scheduled a second trial for Johnson and Little on the murder charge for Feb. 25, 2020. But court records show the trial date was postponed to June 22, 2020, and postponed several more times – to Jan 11, 2021, and later to Feb. 17, 2022, due to COVID-related restrictions before the plea bargain offer was agreed to in September of this year.  The public court records do not show why the trial was postponed the first few times prior to the start of COVID restrictions on court proceedings.

Legal observers have said long delays in trials, especially murder trials, often make it more difficult for prosecutors to obtain a conviction because memories of key witnesses sometimes become faulty several years after a crime was committed.

“The D.C. Anti-Violence Project is disappointed to hear about the unfortunate proceedings in the case to bring justice for Dee Dee Dodds,” Mahdi, the Anti-Violence Project’s chair, told the Blade in a statement.

“A plea bargain from first-degree murder to voluntary manslaughter as well as a reduction of years in sentencing from 30 to 8 communicates not only a miscarriage of justice, but a message of penalization for victims who attempt to protect themselves during a violent assault,” Mahdi said. “The continual impact of reducing the culpability of perpetrators who target members of specifically identified communities sends a malicious message to criminals that certain groups of people are easier targets with lenient consequences,” she said.

“As a result of this pattern, the D.C. community has failed to defend the life and civil rights of Dee Dee Dodds and leaves criminally targeted LGBTQ+ community and other cultural identity communities critically undervalued by stewards of justice in the nation’s capital,” Mahdi concluded.  

William Miller, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, has declined to disclose the reason why prosecutors decided to offer Johnson and Little the plea bargain deal rather than petition the court for a second trial for the two men on the first-degree murder charge.

Attorneys familiar with cases like this, where a jury becomes deadlocked, have said prosecutors sometimes decide to offer a plea deal rather than go to trial again out of concern that another jury could find a defendant not guilty on all charges.

During the trial, defense attorneys told the jury that the Hall brothers were habitual liars and there were inconsistencies in their testimony. They argued that the Halls’ motives were aimed strictly at saying what prosecutors wanted them to say so they could get off with a lighter sentence.

The two prosecutors participating in the trial disputed those claims, arguing that government witnesses provided strong evidence that Johnson and Little should be found guilty of first-degree murder and other related charges.

Before the jury announced it was irreconcilably deadlocked on the murder charges, the jury announced it found Little not guilty of seven separate counts of possession of a firearm during a crime of violence and found Johnson not guilty of five counts of possession of a firearm during a crime of violence.

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Howard County activists and allies hit back at censorship, hate

More than 100 people attended ‘We ARE the People’ rally

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(Photo by Bob Ford)

A diverse crowd of 100 to 200 folks gathered at the Columbia Lakefront on Saturday to attend a rally to push back against censorship in the county’s public schools as well as homophobia and transphobia emanating from a group of conservative parents.

The rally called “We ARE the People” was organized in response to the comments and actions by members of a Maryland-based conservative group “We the People 2” that among other things are anti-masks, anti-vaccinations and are opposed to teaching racial history in the schools. They also oppose two books that are in Howard County Public Schools library shelves: “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy.”

Speakers at a We the People 2 rally last month at an Elkridge warehouse condemned the books, which contain LGBTQ characters, as sexually explicit. The group later filed police reports against the Board of Education alleging the books constitute pornography with “graphic sexual content and materials being used and disseminated in public schools,” according to the group’s press release.  A flier announcing this action used the loaded terminology, “We must not allow our children to be abused and victimized.”

Among the speakers at the Elkridge rally was Republican Gordana Schifanelli who is running for lieutenant governor on the ticket with Daniel Cox. Another speaker, George Johnson, a teacher from Baltimore City, was heard on a video of the event saying, “We’re doing God’s work because Marxism, homosexuality and transgenderism is the devil.”

In response, the pro-LGBTQ rally in Columbia announced the following:

We are taking a stance against hate in the community as we raise our voices in support of equity in our schools. Attacks on teachers and school staff have prompted us to stand united and drown out the noise.

In addition, We ARE the People states:

We stand for LGBTQ+ students and educational professionals

Teaching accurate history to our students

Supporting equitable practices in our schools

Providing students with relevant LGBTQ+ media through their school libraries

The two-hour rally, which was attended by several county council members, featured speakers representing a wide swath of community, educational, religious and political organizations. They included: Community Allies of Rainbow Youth (CARY), Black Lives Activists of Columbia (BLAC), Absolutely Dragulous, Howard County Schools, PFLAG-Columbia/Howard County, IndivisibleHoCoMd, Columbia Democratic Club, Howard Progressive Project, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia (UUCC), HoCo Pride, Progressive Democrats of Howard County, and the Columbia United Christian Church.

Many of the speakers denounced the censorship of materials that are needed by many LGBTQ students. Genderqueer and non-binary students, they point out, are most vulnerable and need affirming literature to help with their development and self-acceptance. The speakers also decried hate speech, which has surfaced again, as well as the opposition to teaching history as it relates to race.

Others argued that the community must not sit back and take it from extremist groups.

“You are all defenders,” said Cynthia Fikes, president of the Columbia Democratic Club, in a fiery speech. “But to succeed a strong defense also needs a strong offense.”

The two books in question were recently the center of controversy in the Fairfax County (Va.) school system. The books were removed in September from the shelves of the high schools pending a comprehensive review following opposition from a parent at a school board meeting. It should be noted that both books were previous winners of the American Library Association’s Alex Awards, which each year recognize “10 books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.”  

The board established two committees consisting of parents, staff and students to assess the content of the books and make recommendations to the assistant superintendent of instructional services who would make the final determination.

One committee found that “Lawn Boy” includes themes that “are affirming for students” with marginalized identities. “There is no pedophilia in the book,” the committee added. The other committee found that “Gender Queer” depicts “difficulties non-binary and asexual individuals may face.” The committee concluded that “the book neither depicts nor describes pedophilia.” The books were restored to the shelves.

“As this backlash against LGTBQ+ literature demonstrates, we must be ready to stand up and defend the progress we have made,” said Jennifer Mallo, member of the Howard County Board of Education, expressing her own point of view. “We must ensure our elected officials understand and share our values and will fight for our marginalized students.”

The enthusiastic crowd was clearly pleased with the event.

“Today’s rally was meant to inspire our community to take action,” said Chris Hefty, who was the lead organizer of the rally and the emcee. “Action that protects our youth. Action that protects our educators and admins. This action comes in the form of advocacy, communication with elected officials so they know your voice, and through well informed voting to ensure those who represent us are those we know will support us. We shared a message of love, acceptance, and warmth.”

Hefty adds, “The unity we facilitated through this rally was a sight to behold. As the lead organizer I couldn’t have been more pleased! In the future we will be sure to better meet the needs of all our community members. We thank all those in our community for their support and feedback and look forward to accomplishing great things together moving forward.”

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Comings & Goings

Nathanson takes role at Outright Action

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Rikki Nathanson

The Comings & Goings column is about sharing the professional successes of our community. We want to recognize those landing new jobs, new clients for their business, joining boards of organizations and other achievements. Please share your successes with us at: [email protected] 

The Comings & Goings column also invites LGBTQ+ college students to share their successes with us. If you have been elected to a student government position, gotten an exciting internship, or are graduating and beginning your career with a great job, let us know so we can share your success. 

Congratulations to Rikki Nathanson on her new position as Senior Advisor – Global Trans Program with OutRight Action International in New York. Nathanson will be based in D.C.  

 “I am absolutely thrilled to be taking on this new role as Senior Advisor in OutRight’s Global Trans Program,” said Nathanson. “I have finally found the perfect fit for me: as a trans woman who has been fighting for equality not only for myself, but for others globally, this position is not only a job, it’s intrinsically part of who I am. So, what better way to live, nurture and grow myself.” 

Nathanson will be working closely with all program staff to ensure a cohesive and intentional approach to gender issues throughout OutRight’s programs, including its approach to gender ideology movements. She will lead new initiatives on gender advocacy and policy change, focused but not limited to legal gender recognition and anti-discrimination legislation and policies.

Prior to this Nathanson was director of housing programs at Casa Ruby in D.C. She has also held a number of other positions including: founder/executive director of Trans Research, Education, Advocacy & Training (TREAT), Zimbabwe; chairperson Southern Africa Trans Forum, SATF, Cape Town, South Africa; executive director, Ricochet Modeling Agency, Zimbabwe; and company secretary for Dunlop Zimbabwe Limited, Zimbabwe. 

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