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October 2, 2008


Brian Prowel is, by nature, an effeminate man. He crosses his legs, swings his foot, files his nails if one has a snag and has a high-pitched voice. He is also openly gay.

After years of being harassed at work with taunts, innuendo, scribblings on the bathroom walls and a myriad of other degradations, he filed a federal lawsuit on Feb. 23, 2006. He claimed sex discrimination by management and co-workers at Wise Business Forms Inc. in Butler, Pa. because he did not live up to their stereotypes of how a man should look and act.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry said that the behavior Mr. Prowel was subjected to was "reprehensible" but dismissed his claim, saying that he was discriminated against not because of his sex but because of his sexual preference -- something that is not covered by federal law.

In 1989 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that gender stereotyping is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights act of 1964. That ruling said, in essence, that employers "can't make women act feminine, and they can't make men act masculine."

This is the basis of Brian's appeal. His attorney, Timothy P. O'Brien, said that making fun of Mr. Prowel for being effeminate, calling him "Princess," and giving him a tiara all "smack" of gender stereotyping. Mr. O'Brian believes that whether the harassment was based on gender stereotyping or sexual preference, it is still a decision to be made by the jury and not a judge.

Susan Frietsche, senior staff attorney with the Women's Law Project in Pittsburgh, wrote a lengthy friend-of-the-court brief on Mr. Prowel's behalf saying that women continue to be subjected to horrific harassment when they work in positions that don't conform to gender stereotypes.

Ms. Frietsche also wrote:

"If the reasoning of the district court in this case is upheld, however, employers who seek to lock women out of these well-paying fields could evade Title VII liability through the simple expedient of lacing their gender discrimination with enough anti-lesbian slurs."

This situation is one more compelling reason why the Federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) MUST be passed!