A South Dakota teenager has filed a discrimination complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after he says his manager at a Taco John's subjected him to antigay slurs, then forced him to wear a nametag reading "Gaytard."
Tyler Brandt was 16 when he started working at a Taco John's franchise in Yankton, S.D., the teenager explains in a blog post he authored for the American Civil Liberties Union. The gay teen said he took the job to earn extra money for clothes, a cell phone, and going out with friends.
"I hadn't been working at Taco John's long before the night manager was saying things about me to other employees behind my back, calling me 'faggot,' and saying things like, 'Tyler is so gay it's not even funny,'" writes Brandt at the ACLU's blog.
After roughly three weeks at the fast-food chain, Brandt says he was called into the manager's office and handed a new name tag, which read "Gaytard," framed by small hearts.
"My mom raised me to be respectful and polite, and I didn't want to lose my job," explained Brandt. "So I put the name tag on and then said, 'Okay, can I take it off now?' [My manager] just laughed at me and told me to leave it on. He made me wear that embarrassing name tag all night."
Brandt says he tried to obscure customers' view of his name tag by standing in front of the register, but his manager insisted on calling the teenager by the insulting name repeatedly, loudly, and in front of customers.
On Wednesday, the ACLU announced that it is assisting Brandt in filing a discrimination claim with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission.
After Brandt took his story to the media in June, Taco John's corporate office issued a statement saying it takes claims of discrimination seriously, but that it was "up to the local franchise in Yankton to do something" about the harassment Brandt experienced, according to the ACLU. Notably, that statement from Jeff Linville, the CEO of Taco John's International, is no longer available on the company's website. In a post dated less than two weeks before Brandt took his story public, however, Taco John's posted an announcement of its company-wide partnership with antibullying initiative Stomp Out Bullying. That post, which includes a statement from Linville, contends that Taco John's "is working with its franchisees to promote Stomp Out Bullying at the grassroots level."
When the Taco John's franchise where Brandt formerly worked responded to his allegations, the store's general manager claimed that Brandt had made the name tag himself as part of a good-natured joke, and accused the teenager of blowing the incident out of proportion and rushing to the media before all the facts could be investigated.
"We didn't even get to defend ourselves," franchise manager John Scott told the Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan June 25. "Everyone thinks we're guilty. Don't believe everything you read on the Internet."
"Everyone has a nickname here, and he wanted a nickname," Scott continued. "['Gaytard' is] what he picked for a nickname. He wasn't forced to wear the name tag. He asked the manager to make that name tag for him. ... He put it on himself and created the situation. He said the manager forced him to do it. The manager didn't force him to do anything."
"It wasn't my idea, and I never thought it was funny," writes Brandt in Wednesday's ACLU blog post. "It's a mean, ugly word that makes fun of both gay people and people with developmental disabilities, and I would never call myself a name like that."
South Dakota's nondiscrimination law does not protect workers from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity, nor does the state have LGBT-inclusive hate-crime laws, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of the town where Brandt worked. That spelling has now been corrected. The Advocate apologizes for this error.