Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Lawsuit claims culture of homophobia in California parks system


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An openly lesbian Southern California park employee has filed an employment harassment suit against the state, claiming California's park rangers "are still an old boys' club" replete with the bias associated with nepotism and membership restriction.

Attorneys for California state park ranger Jennifer Donovan filed the civil suit December 16 in San Diego County Superior Court against the plaintiff's employer, the California Department of Parks and Recreation and several co-workers. The lawsuit describes an embattled employee enduring numerous incidents of homophobic slurs, harassment, and discrimination by her Southern California co-workers based, at least in part, on her sexual orientation.

A media spokesperson for the department could not be reached for comment by press time.

Donovan was out of town for the holidays and unavailable to comment, her attorneys said.

Donovan claims repeated and perverse sexual harassment and acts of discrimination against her while park security continued code enforcement that disproportionately targeted an area known to be a favorite of LGBT park guests.

Donovan's complaint stated these acts took place over the course of several years starting in 2000, continuing throughout her career.

The lawsuit allegations include the posting of sexually explicit materials in the employee's public workplace, including hanging up sex toys found in investigations, women's underwear found in the field posted on lockers, and derogatory material about homosexuality, including explicit and vulgar discussion of gay sex acts different from terms used to discuss heterosexuality.

Donovan's work area included a coastal park area called "Trail 6," popular with both gay and lesbian San Diegans, and included a nude sunbathing spot. This area was routinely targeted for code violations, especially pertaining to alcohol and public decency laws.

Also posted in the employees' lounge were fliers with baseless text that conjured up parallels between homosexuality and pedophilia, according to the complaint. Obscene drawings and pictures of a supervisor dressed in a woman's bathing suit – which was found during the course of duty – were also among the items Donovan claimed created a culture that lacked boundaries and supported the discriminatory practices and myths about LGBT employees and guests. 

Donovan also charges in the lawsuit that the workplace culture supported an environment where inappropriate jokes about sex were told or posted and negative stereotypes regarding homosexuals and transsexuals were a ritualized chorus. 

The lawsuit alleges that Donovan was regularly denied promotions while those who possessed less experience, qualifications, and seniority would regularly advance past her. 

Donovan also claims that when she complained of harassment and sexual orientation discrimination, park supervisors retaliated by removing Donovan from her regular position and placing her instead in a time-limited temporary position. 

Park ranger supervisors, as well as the park employees accused by Donovan of discriminatory and retaliatory acts against her, either kept their positions, or in certain cases, were promoted.

Donovan's placement in a time-defined temporary position only intensified the employee's fear about losing her job, according to the suit.

"How can we expect peace officers who display openly racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes and material to serve and protect all of California's citizens equally, as they are duty bound to do?" said Donovan's attorneys, Wendy Musell and Elisa Stewart of Stewart & Musell in San Francisco.

Donovan concludes her complaint with the statement, "I hope that by filing this lawsuit, no other women peace officers will have to go through what I have – just to do the job they love, protecting California's state parks."

The case is Donovan v. California Parks and Recreation, Case no. 37-2008-00089893.

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