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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Gay ex-miner pushes for anti-discrimination bills

Former coal miner Sam Hall (right) sued a Massey Energy subsidiary in December, alleging that he had faced harassment at work because he is gay. His partner, Burley Williams, says he constantly worried about Hall's safety at work.
By Alison Knezevich -

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sam Hall says he never told the other men he was gay.
"I tried to play the manly man," said Hall, a lean 28-year-old who worked five years in Southern West Virginia coal mines. "It didn't work."
The other miners found out anyway.
And then, according to a lawsuit Hall filed in December against his former employer, the harassment started. Hall says he faced homophobic taunts, threats of violence and vandalism to his car.
Now, Hall is pushing for state legislation to protect West Virginians from discrimination based on their sexual orientation.
On Monday, he's set to appear at a Capitol news conference with the group Fairness West Virginia to endorse two bills (SB226 and HB2045) that would add sexual orientation to the state's existing civil-rights laws, which already cover race, gender, religion and other characteristics.
The legislation is meant to prevent discrimination in the workplace, housing and public accommodations such as hotels and restaurants.
Hall grew up in Clay County, where "[being gay] is something you never put out there because you've got a lot of country boys," he said
In 2005, he went to work for Mammoth Coal, a Massey Energy subsidiary. It was good money, he said. He worked 10- to 12-hour shifts, sometimes six days a week.
In the mines, "I never came out," he said. "I didn't want to be perceived as someone who was out there flaunting my sexuality."
Hall's lawsuit alleges that managers did not stop miners from harassing him. Sometimes, supervisors took part.
Co-workers shook their penises at Hall underground and in the bathhouse, according to the lawsuit. They scrawled slurs on his locker and dinner bucket, wrote "faggot" on his car, and stuck a cardboard sign on the vehicle that said "I like little boys."
"We're told underground all the time: You look after the next guy. Well, even though these guys were doing this, I still looked after them," Hall said. "You're supposed to be your brother's keeper underground."
Massey General Counsel Shane Harvey said the company is investigating Hall's allegations.
"We're not going to discuss the investigation while it's ongoing, for Mr. Hall's sake and for everyone else's sake," Harvey said, "but I can say that, as a corporation generally, we certainly don't approve of harassment of anyone because of sexual orientation."
According to court papers, the mining company suspended one of Hall's alleged harassers for three days "for unprofessional behavior."
Mammoth Coal also says in legal filings that Hall was transferred to another mine at his request and that he met with Mammoth managers, "but denies that his complaints were about sexual or any other type of unlawful harassment."
Hall's lawsuit alleges that he got especially worried when the harassment escalated to threats of violence, such as "I would like to see all faggots die."
His partner, Burley Williams, said he constantly worried when Hall was at work.
If Hall was late getting home, Williams jumped in his car.
"I'd just get up and go looking for him," said Williams, a 37-year-old state worker.
The couple married last July in Washington, D.C., and live near Elkview.
Hall left the mines two months after he filed his lawsuit.
"The abuse continued and it became a very unsafe work environment," said Charleston attorney Roger Forman, who filed Hall's lawsuit in Kanawha County Circuit Court.
Forman said Hall is standing up for all victims of harassment and discrimination.
In many sexual harassment cases, people "don't immediately complain because they're scared," he said.
Hall doesn't know what he'll do next, but says he's always preferred manual labor to office work. Before he mined coal, he worked in a lumberyard and roofed houses.
"Not all of us are hairstylists," he joked.
At Monday's news conference, two candidates in the special gubernatorial election are scheduled to appear in support of Hall - acting Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.
The state Senate passed similar bills adding sexual orientation to state civil-rights laws in 2008 and 2009, but the legislation has not had success in the House of Delegates.
"We need to see some leadership in the House to work on solving this problem, and we need it now," said Stephen Skinner, president of Fairness West Virginia, which advocates for gays and lesbians. "Most people don't understand that people can be fired from their jobs or kicked out of their hotel rooms simply because they're gay."
Opponents of the legislation include the Family Policy Council of West Virginia, whose president, Jeremy Dys, said the legislation "insults the civil-rights pioneers."
"This is a time for the state to be encouraging strong marriages," Dys said. "They shouldn't be pursuing helping special-interest groups achieve a political agenda that does an end around [to] the social and moral convictions of West Virginians."
Hall said he's nervous about appearing at a news conference, but that nothing could be as difficult as coming out to his family when he was 16.
"If I can do that," he said, "I can do anything."


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