The ongoing battle over employment discrimination

Richard Aumiller from the October 1976 issue of PGN

In the 1970s, issues of PGN had two stories that appeared almost every week: Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade (and the resistance efforts launched against her), and someone being fired from their job because of their sexuality. Congresswoman Bella Abzug spearheaded the first national effort to prevent employment discrimination in 1974. It happened with such regularity and continues to occur across the country that Congress has introduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) almost every session since 1994. Each time, unfortunately, has been unsuccessful.

One of the first instances of employment discrimination reported in PGN was the case of Richard Aumiller, the theater director at the University of Delaware. In January 1976, Aumiller was told by university officials that he would be dismissed in August at the conclusion of his contract. The reasoning, according to university President Edward Trabant, was that Aumiller “encouraged, condoned and sanctioned homosexuality for the undergraduate” when he gave quotes to three local newspapers about being faculty advisor to the campus gay student group. “The use of one’s position at the university and/or its facilities cannot be permitted to promote lifestyles that most Americans consider aberrations,” Trabant said. 

At issue was Aumiller’s first amendment right to free speech. The university claimed that Aumiller, in his newspaper interviews, promoted homosexuality to students. The defense claimed he was advocating for equality for homosexuals and not pushing a lifestyle on anybody.

“I think [my lawyer] saw I had a good chance of winning the case on the first amendment, freedom of speech grounds,” Aumiller said to PGN in October 2019. “The university wasn’t firing me for being gay; they were firing me for speaking out about it. We could prove they weren’t firing me for being gay. I’d been an advocate on the campus for several years, and then I was the faculty advisor for the gay student group. They knew I was gay. They fired me because I had the temerity to actually say so in public.”

Aumiller muddled through several levels of University bureaucracy, filing grievances first with the theater department and then with the College of Arts and Sciences. Both appeals were denied despite support from the American Association of University Professors. After exhausting his options, Aumiller and the ACLU took the case to U.S. District Court under Judge Murray M. Schwartz.

While waiting for his court date, Aumiller continued to work unpaid, helping to put together the theater department’s fall program. One positive sign for the case was that the university did not deny his unemployment compensation. Still, he knew that he would never be able to get an academic job until he was exonerated. It took seven months to exhaust the appeals process and get a court date. During that time, Aumiller dealt with the newfound publicity the case had brought him.

“I was a famous homosexual in Delaware for a year and a half. I’d never thought of homosexuality as my career. That’s who I became, and it cut both ways. All sorts of lovely people came up to me in stores, at bank lines, and just said thank you so much, congratulations, we admire your courage. And then, of course, there were just as many people who walked up and hissed at me and spat on me. I had death threats over the phone. I moved to a friend’s apartment where I wasn’t on the lease. Nobody knew where I was.”

At the District Court hearings, President Trabant cited “the growing body of evidence that the University was beginning to attract homosexuals” as a reason for declining to renew Aumiller’s contract. Trabant also said that Aumiller had misused his University telephone and that a photograph of him was taken in a University building, both of which could draw negative attention to the school. Judge Schwartz, when presented with the newspaper interviews and the photo in question, rebuffed Trabant’s claims and said that the university president was less than forthcoming in the matter. (The photo showed a black background with no identifying information.)

In a 109-page opinion released in June 1977, the court ruled in Aumiller’s favor and awarded him reinstatement, back wages, and $15,000 in damages, $5,000 of which Trabant was directly responsible for paying because of his “pernicious insensitivity” and “wanton disregard” of Aumiller’s rights. The university chose not to appeal the decision and agreed to the full settlement, which included erasing the whole affair from Aumiller’s employment records.

Aumiller wound up taking a job at Duke University, where he worked for five years. When the Philadelphia Inquirer called Duke University to ask if it was their policy to hire known homosexuals, President Terry Sanford said, according to Aumiller and another former professor, “it is the policy of Duke University to hire the best-qualified candidate for the job. Period.”  

Aumiller’s case was highly covered in PGN, which ran six articles between 1976 and 1978. The final article, in January 1978, reported that the University of Delaware’s Board of Trustees had reimbursed President Trabant for his ordered $5,000 damage fee, stating that his actions were done with the full knowledge of the board. (Trabant continued in his position, and in 1996 the university student center was named in his honor.)

Four decades after the Aumiller case, the same thing continues to happen. LGBT people in 29 states can be lawfully fired because of their sexual orientation. Lambda Legal, which fights for LGBT civil rights, received 1,139 inquiries about workplace discrimination between January and October this year. 

There may be some movement soon in the fight for equal workplace rights. This past fall, the Supreme Court heard the cases of two gay men and one transgender woman who were fired from their jobs for their sexual orientation and gender identity, respectively. The court is expected to announce its decision in mid-2020, and the result would affect more LGBT people than the 2015 marriage case, hailed as the most significant victory for equality at the time. Next year will mark 46 years since Bella Abzug’s first attempt at employment nondiscrimination and 44 years since Richard Aumiller’s ordeal with the University of Delaware.

When asked whether he would endure the lawsuit again, Aumiller was uncertain. But he remained thankful for the outcome.

“I had no idea what was in store for me, my picture on the front page of the paper saying I was encouraging, condoning and sanctioning homosexuality for the undergraduate; people saying I was turning the university into a gay mecca. I was the first gay person that a lot of people had ever met in their lives. So I tried to behave with dignity and maintain my pride through the horror and set a good example. It was upsetting; it’s still upsetting. I won, but not entirely. Winners and losers are a subjective matter. It’s hard to tell who won and who lost. It was just a very traumatic experience, which I’m glad I did, and I’m glad I won and gave other homosexuals some hope that they could not just be summarily fired for being gay.”