Jurors could reach a verdict as early as Wednesday, Feb. 11, on a sexual-harassment lawsuit filed by four San Diego firefighters against the city for ordering them to ride in a 2007 gay-pride parade.
For the head of the group that organized the parade, the verdict couldn't come soon enough.
Ron deHarte, executive director of San Diego Pride, says all the media chatter surrounding the sensational case has interfered with the annual event's message.
“The parade is a community event,” deHarte said in a phone interview shortly after testifying in the case. “That whole sense of community and what the parade is about gets lost in the trial. This is about human rights, and [the firefighters' claims] just run counter to what we're about. We're about respect, equality and diversity.”
At issue is whether the San Diego Rescue-Fire Department effectively participated in sexually harassing the plaintiffs—Chad Allison, John Ghiotto, Jason Hewitt and Alex Kane—by telling them to drive a fire engine in the July 21, 2007, parade. The firefighters claim that while traveling the parade's route through Hillcrest, they were subjected to catcalls and sexually explicit gestures by spectators. As a result, they say, they suffered severe emotional and physical pain, including headaches, stomach upset and feelings of humiliation and betrayal by their superiors.
According to news accounts, the trial—the second, after the first ended in a jury deadlock—has focused largely on whether the firefighters experienced harassment to the extent of which they claim. While other San Diego firefighters testified they also witnessed misbehavior by parade goers, attorneys for the city zeroed in on apparent inconsistencies in the plaintiffs' accounts. Kane testified to experiencing harassment throughout the parade route but later said he witnessed “pockets” of misbehavior.
The four men's original lawsuit stated that the harassment began at the parade staging area and was so pervasive that the firefighters “could not look into the crowd, even to wave at a child, without having pornographic words and actions… directed at them.”
DeHarte says he testified in both trials that neither he nor any other parade official he spoke with were told of the kinds of behaviors the firefighters described.
“No one has told us there was harassment at the parade,” he says. “That would have been so wrong that organizers would have been informed about it quickly.”
He adds that the lawsuit hasn't caused him to feel differently about the Fire Department.
“I don't want to make light of anyone's personal beliefs,” he says. “It's a highly unusual situation that occurred. [But] I think the community is better than that. I know the Fire Department doesn't feel that way. These are four individuals that don't represent the very large body of public-safety and law-enforcement officers in the city.”