When 22-year-old Michael Verdugo performed in a gay bondage flick called Rope Rituals in 1996, there was no XTube or Facebook. But when the out Hollywood, Fla., police officer became a contestant on HGTV’s Design Star in 2008, times had changed. Word spread quickly about Verdugo’s onetime X-rated role, and he was placed on administrative leave before ultimately being fired in January 2009 after eight years on the force. Verdugo challenged his termination, and an “an 80-year-old Republican” arbitrator recently upheld the police force’s decision, but he's planning a lawsuit. Now 35 and an interior designer, Verdugo spoke to The Advocate about “the fight of his life.”
Before news of the movie came out, you filed a successful antigay harassment claim against your HPD superior. Did that play a role in your firing?
The work environment changed after that; I made a complaint on a well-liked supervisor. From that day, my fate was sealed.
The HPD claims you were fired because you didn’t mention the movie on your job application. What’s your response?
I also forgot to put down on my application that I worked at a gym for three months. They found that out, and it was OK. If they found out I was in Hamlet and didn’t bring it up when hired, we wouldn’t be here right now.
So it’s simply about homophobia?
If it were a straight porn, I wouldn’t have been fired. The fact that it was bondage and gay freaked them out.
What’s the status of the suit?
I’m meeting with Lambda Legal, and I have the Democratic Party behind me in the state of Florida. We’re all getting together to file suit.
What is it like to be an openly gay cop in South Florida?
I have great friends there still, but I think its rougher in the department than on the street. I never had problems on the street. I’m not the [gay] stereotype. I guess when my coworkers found out about me [being gay] they were shocked, but I’ve never been in the closet — I’ve always been out. I just don’t walk around with a flag. I have a lot of friends there and have a lot of support there, and I don’t expect everyone to accept it, being 2010. But discrimination is so severe in the HPD toward gender, race, and ethnicity [too].
Is it true you were disinvited to the Design Star reunion?
That’s correct. I was invited back [initially], and the video came out and I was still invited back. The reunion is all pretaped and then it’s a live show at the end — it’s not really live, but it’s supposed to look live. So the video came out; HGTV public relations called me and said we still want you back on the reunion show, we’ll still give you support. Then the day of the show they called me and said you’re not invited. Mind you, I bought five tickets for people to go because we were allowed five tickets for friends and family to go to Tennessee [where the show was filmed].
Was there an explanation?
None at all.