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Bad will at Goodwill? 

Fired gay employee files discrimination complaint with state officials

click to enlarge Bryan Simms - BRIENNE BOORTZ
  • Brienne Boortz
  • Bryan Simms

Life is just dandy for Dorothy Cannon, drag queen "princess royal' to the community's most benevolent order of monarchs. But when the United Court of the Pikes Peak Empire figurehead puts away his red, 5-inch, peep-toe pumps and reverts to life as mild-mannered Bryan Simms, things suddenly become more complicated.

Simms says that for being open about his homosexuality, he lost his job in January at Goodwill Industries of Colorado Springs a nonprofit he says he joined because of its ethic of helping others and treating them with dignity and respect. In a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, Simms says he faced requests and remarks that constitute harassment. When he complained that the environment was hostile, he says, he was fired.

Simms says he "came out" about being gay five years ago, while living in California. About three years ago, he moved to Colorado Springs to be nearer his kids and ex-wife, who had moved to Texas. He also has relatives in the Colorado Springs area.

"My family is mostly accepting of me," Simms says. "It hasn't been easy ... I'm trying my best to be true to myself."

When Goodwill hired him last October, he was ecstatic. He would be a case manager to low-income people who need to fulfill volunteer requirements to receive government aid, such as Food Stamps.

From the start, Simms says, he was "out" with his co-workers.

"I didn't say, "I'm gay, I'm gay, I'm gay.' But when co-workers were speaking about their dates over the weekend, I'd say what I was going to do and where I was going to go. They figured it out."

He seemed to be making friends. One co-worker gave him a pair of high heels after he loaned her his ball gown, Simms says. Another employee, talking on the condition of anonymity, says, "Bryan was himself, and that's why many of us liked him."

Jumping through hoops

Simms says he adored his job. But he also faced what he considered "anti-gay" jabs, particularly from a female supervisor.

"Just days after starting, she called me into her office and said to me, "You need to change your appearance,'" Simms says. "Then she pointed to her ears."

Simms interpreted the gesture as a demand that he no longer wear earrings. Not wanting to be seen as a troublemaker, Simms at first complied partially, wearing his hoops only on Fridays. Yet later, feeling "a little frustrated" and singled out, Simms decided to wear the earrings regularly again.

"The women were allowed to wear earrings at Goodwill," he says. "Why should they hold me to a gender stereotype? I felt this was an issue of equal rights. I should be allowed to wear earrings, too, if I choose."

Simms describes other situations, including a "team huddle" in which his supervisor implored him to "put on" his "toughest man voice."

"Some of my co-workers came up to me afterwards and said, "I can't believe she said that to you,'" Simms says.

click to enlarge Bryan Simms also appears as princess Dorothy Cannon, - but didnt dress that way at work. - BRIENNE BOORTZ
  • Brienne Boortz
  • Bryan Simms also appears as princess Dorothy Cannon, but didnt dress that way at work.

On Jan. 25, Simms e-mailed his supervisor's boss to complain about a hostile work environment. In the e-mail, which didn't reference sexual discrimination specifically, he stated that his boss was difficult to work for and unfair to employees. Simms wanted to start a conversation in which he could be more candid about the atmosphere he faced as a gay man. Instead, about a week later, Simms was called into a meeting with a higher manager and fired.

"They said that I broke the chain of command, and that that was against company policy," Simms says.

An investigator at the Civil Rights Division has declined comment, citing policy.

The next level

If the division launches an investigation and finds sufficient evidence to support Simms' claims, it could ask Goodwill to reconcile the matter, for example, by rehiring Simms. If the matter remains unresolved, Simms could be granted the right to sue Goodwill in U.S. district court.

Ryan Acker, executive director of the Pride Center, formally known as the Pikes Peak Gay and Lesbian Community Center, notes that Colorado last year updated its nondiscrimination law to include sexual orientation.

"Even with new law, it has taken businesses a while to catch up," Acker says. "In Colorado Springs, these kinds of discrimination cases are, unfortunately, rampant."

He adds that it appears Simms had no choice but to complain to higher-ups about his work atmosphere.

"It is important that people can go up to the next level to raise issues if they feel they must," Acker says.

On its Web site, Goodwill Industries International says it does not "discriminate in employment opportunities or practices based on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, age, disability, or any other characteristic protected by federal, state or local law."

Laura Marth, a spokeswoman for Goodwill Industries of Colorado Springs, affirms the policy and says that the company strives to create a safe and welcoming atmosphere for workers. She declines to comment specifically on Simms' allegations, citing an ongoing internal investigation at Goodwill.

"We're aware of the issue, and our H.R. department is looking into it," Marth says.

Simms' former fellow employees, who spoke to the Independent on the condition of anonymity because they fear retaliation, confirm some of the incidents as Simms describes. At least one employee feels strongly that Simms faced discrimination because he is gay.

"He was treated differently," the employee says.

Simms is now working as a security guard. He says he won't back down in his fight with Goodwill.

"I want to make sure that they don't mistreat their employees anymore," Simms says. "Goodwill is supposed to be a better organization than that."

deyoanna@csindy.com

  • Bryan Simms says for being open about his homosexuality, he lost his job in January.

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