Is harassment based on domestic violence illegal?

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Question:

I had to take time off recently to get a restraining order against my former partner. He hit me several times during our relationship; I finally moved out after he pushed me down a flight of stairs and threatened to kill me. I had to take a few days off work to get medical treatment, move out of our apartment while he was at work, and get a temporary restraining order. I didn't tell anyone at work what was going on. 

Next week, I need to go back to court to make the restraining order permanent. I decided to confide in my boss about the situation and why I needed time off -- big mistake! I guess I assumed that he would be understanding because he is also gay. But he immediately asked me why I didn't fight back, why I would let another man push me around, why I was acting like a victim and expecting the legal system to protect me, why I was relying on laws intended to protect women. He also told some of my coworkers, who have started teasing me and joking about my situation. This is upsetting me so much that I can hardly get my work done. What should I do? 

Answer:

Your boss and coworkers are not only being insensitive and inappropriate: They are likely also engaged in illegal harassment. 

Federal law doesn't currently protect private-sector employees from discrimination or harassment based on sexual orientation. And, although a number of states give employees the right to take time off work to get restraining orders and deal with other immediate needs relating to domestic violence, only a handful protect employees from discrimination or harassment based on having experienced domestic violence. 

But that isn't the end of the story. Federal law and the laws of virtually every state prohibit gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Although your situation doesn't bear much resemblance to a typical sexual harassment case, that's what you're experiencing. Your boss and coworkers are acting on the basis of sex-based stereotypes. They believe that only women can be the victims of domestic violence, that men should fight back, that men cannot be victims, and so on. In other words, they are treating you badly because you do not conform to their assumptions about men and women. 

The law recognizes that sexual harassment doesn't only take the form of explicitly sexual behavior, such as dirty jokes, lewd come-ons, and groping. Sex-based harassment is also illegal. It often happens when women in historically male jobs, such as construction work, are mistreated, threatened, or even put in danger because their male coworkers believe that women should not be doing that type of work. Your situation is similar: Your male coworkers seem to believe that a man should not seek the protection of the legal system for domestic violence. 

If you haven't already, your first step should be to talk to your boss and tell him that his comments are hurtful and upsetting. You might want to explain that domestic violence happens in same-sex relationships, that there is no shame in seeking help, and that you are proud of taking a stand to protect yourself. (You can find good information from a group that works on LGBT domestic violence, like San Francisco's Community United Against Violence.) Or, you might not: It isn't up to you to educate your boss and coworkers or prove that you are doing the right thing. 

If you aren't comfortable talking to your boss, go to your company's HR department and make a complaint. Explain that your ability to do your job is being affected by the harassment, and that you want it to stop immediately. Once you take this step, the company should investigate and take corrective action. 

If the company doesn't act, you aren't satisfied with the response, or you continue facing harassment, consider consulting with a lawyer. At this point, it might be time to file an administrative charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a similar state agency to assert your rights. You are in the extremely stressful situation of facing mistreatment at work while trying to recover from domestic violence in your personal life. An attorney can help you assess your options, protect yourself from further harassment, and decide on the best way to move forward. 

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