News :: Workplace

Male Former Staffer Files Sexual Harassment Suit Against Jesse Jackson

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Sep 21, 2011
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A gay former employee of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition has filed suit, alleging sexual harassment and workplace discrimination, reported Gawker on Sept. 21.

Tommy Bennett had filed a complaint against Jackson earlier this year. Though not a suit, the complaint sought remuneration to the tune of $450,000.

The lawsuit reiterates those complaints and adds more specifics. Gawker noted that among descriptions of anti-gay hostility in the office, the suit says that a co-worker taunted and harassed Bennett in a number of ways, including praying aloud for "homosexual spirits" to be expelled from the office and asking God to "get these homosexuals out of here and do it in Jesus’ name."

That co-worker left the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, and Bennett took charge of more responsibilities, but, the complaint alleges, some of the additional tasks with which he was charged were "humiliating," such as assignments that included bringing women to Jackson in hotel rooms and tidying up after Jackson’s assignations. The complaint also claimed that Jackson requested Bennett to apply ointment to his inner thigh and, on another occasion, seemed to be hinting a desire for oral sex.

The suit now calls for substantially more money than the initial complaint did -- about $98,000 in back pay and $350,000 in damages.

Jackson stated at the time of the initial complaint that all Bennett’s claims were false.

"The Rainbow PUSH Coalition unequivocally deny Tommy Bennett’s false claims of harassment, retaliation and discrimination," an April 13 statement from the group said. The statement added that the Rainbow PUSH Coalition is "fully cooperating with the Chicago Commission on Human Relations and expect to be fully exonerated."

The group’s response followed an April 12 article in the Windy City Times on Bennett’s complaint.

"Rev. Jackson has a long record of support for LGBT rights, including during his runs for U.S. president and his speech at the LGBT March on Washington in 1987," the Windy City Times piece noted. "This is believed to be the first time an allegation has come forward claiming he was involved in sexual orientation harassment and discrimination."

According to the complaint, during Bennett’s two years with the group--during which time he acted as National Director of Community Affairs--he was subjected to anti-gay harassment from his superiors. Though he complained, nothing was done to rectify the situation, the filing asserts. Bennett was terminated in December, 2009--wrongfully so, the complaint asserts.

Bennett’s sexuality was a matter of public knowledge because he also worked in radio, appearing on the Tom Joyner Morning Show as flamboyant Aruba Tommy.

When Bennett became Jackson’s travel assistant, the complaint says, he was given tasks that included bringing women to Jackson’s rooms and then straightening up "[Jackson’s] room after sexual intercourse with women." The complaint also alleges that Jackson approached Bennett himself for sexual favors, on one occasion requesting that Bennett apply an unguent to Jackson to treat "a rash between his legs."

On another occasion, the complaint asserts, Jackson--in a half-dressed state and allegedly sexually aroused--regaled Bennett with a suggestive anecdote.

"Before Mr. Bennett left, Rev. Jackson stated that white folks took the word ’gay’ and gave the word its own definition. Rev. Jackson further stated that he was a very poor child in North Carolina and his name was first Jesse Burns, and then Jesse Robinson and then he became Jesse Jackson.

"Rev. Jackson stated that he played football and there was a gay high school teacher who took Rev. Jackson under his wings and told him that he needed education to go along with football," the complaint says, according to the Windy City Times article. "Rev. Jackson said, ’[F]rom that gay teacher, I got a good grade, I got to use his car, I got ten dollars and I got my dick sucked.’ Rev. Jackson said, ’[T]hat’s not gay, that is surviving.’"

The complaint also asserts that though Bennett was let go from the Rainbow PUSH Coalition ostensibly because of funding issues, the group hired others after his firing.

"[Jackson] used me as a scapegoat because he was dating two women," Bennett told the Windy City Times. "However, because I knew what was going on, he told his family and friends that I wrote a letter [outing one of the girlfriends], which was not true. By doing that, it looked like I was the bad person. At that point, [one of the alleged mistresses] told [Jackson] to get rid of me."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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