Lambda Seeks Justice for Top High School Teacher Targeted by Anti-Gay Abuse

An award-winning high school teacher mercilessly harassed for being a lesbian is asking a California appellate court to reinstate her employment discrimination case against her school district, according to the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The case is California’s first appeals-court challenge of anti-gay harassment of a teacher.

On Monday, March 13, Lambda Staff Attorney Myron Dean Quon will argue on behalf of teacher Dawn Murray in Murray v. Oceanside Unified School District before the Fourth District Court of Appeal in San Diego. Quon and Murray will speak with reporters following the argument.

"School officials teach our kids a terrible lesson by tolerating the harassment of lesbian and gay teachers. Our schools should be nurturing respect for diversity, not breeding hate and discrimination against gay people. It’s shameful that an exemplary, talented teacher like Murray is forced to withstand vicious attacks on her reputation," said Quon.

Despite hostile work conditions, Murray has been a top teacher of high school biology, earning honors such as a prestigious Princeton University fellowship for teaching biotechnology to high school students and an award from the National Association of Biology Teachers as an Outstanding Biology Teacher of the Year. A veteran biology teacher, Murray has been working for the school district since 1983.

In 1993, Murray was denied a promotion to student activities director at Oceanside High School after a school official objected that someone with her "lifestyle" "shouldn’t be that close to the kids." Since then, Murray has had to suffer rumors spread by district employees and false accusations that she had sexual encounters on campus with a co-worker; to endure an obsessive focus on her sexual orientation from school administrators, teachers, and other school personnel; and to be targeted with vandalism of her classroom. When she pressed for action to stop this harassment, Murray was threatened with loss of her job.

"No one deserves to be treated the way I have simply because of my sexual orientation. All I’m asking for is my day in court," Murray said.

Murray filed suit against her school district in 1996, but a trial court dismissed the case, erroneously ruling that California’s law prohibits only sexual orientation discrimination based on the hiring, firing, or promotion, but not harassment of an employee based on her sexual orientation.

Lambda hopes to reinstate the case and show that sexual orientation harassment, like racial or sexual harassment, is prohibited. Supporting Murray with friend-of-the-court briefs are the Tom Homann Law Association, San Diego’s lesbian and gay bar association, and San Francisco’s Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom.

"Employees are entitled to a workplace free from harassment and discrimination. But the trial court’s decision in this case effectively tells gay, lesbian and bisexual employees that unlike other minorities, if they are harassed at work, they don’t have any recourse unless they were also fired. That ruling is contrary to well established public policy in California," said Darin L. Wessel, who co-authored the Homann brief.

Lambda, the nation’s oldest and largest gay legal organization, is headquartered in New York. It’s Western Regional Office in Los Angeles is now marking its 10th year.

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