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Missouri Cop Told to 'Tone Down' Gayness Wins $20 Million in Suit

Keith Wildhaber

Sgt. Keith Wildhaber said St. Louis County denied him promotion 23 times because of antigay bias.

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A jury in Missouri has ruled that a police officer who sued over what he said was antigay discrimination should receive nearly $20 million in damages.

Sgt. Keith Wildhaber of the St. Louis County Police alleged that his supervisors said he needed to "tone down" his gayness if he wanted to be promoted, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. Wildhaber said he was denied a promotion 23 times because he's gay and was transferred to a less desirable location in a retaliatory move after he filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016.

He sued in county court in 2017.

Wildhaber, who has been with the department since 1997, said the antigay discrimination amounted to sex discrimination under the Missouri Human Rights Act, which bans sex discrimination but does not explicitly ban sexual orientation discrimination. The department, he said, showed bias against him because he didn't conform to sex or gender stereotypes -- an argument similar to that made by LGBTQ plaintiffs in lawsuits citing federal civil rights law.

The officer's suit noted a conversation he had with a member of the county's Board of Police Commissioners, John Saracino, who told him, "The command staff has a problem with your sexuality. If you ever want to see a white shirt, you should tone down your gayness." The "white shirt" refers to the uniforms worn by commanders.

A witness at the trial last week mentioned a similar conversation, the Post-Dispatch reports. Donna Woodland, the widow of a St. Louis County officer, said a department commander once told her Wildhaber was "fruity" and that he was "way too out there with his gayness and he needed to tone it down if he wanted a white shirt."

Wildhaber said he was passed over for promotion despite receiving excellent performance reviews. The department contended he was denied promotion not because he's gay but for other reasons, such as tipping off the subject of an FBI investigation. Wildhaber said he did not reveal the investigation.

The St. Louis County jury found Wildhaber's allegations credible, ruling Friday that he should be awarded millions. The award consists of $1.9 million in actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages on the discrimination claim, and $999,000 in actual damages and $7 million in punitive damages for the retaliation claim, the Post-Dispatch reports.

"We wanted to send a message," the jury foreman, identified only as juror number 4, said after the decision. "If you discriminate you are going to pay a big price. ... You can't defend the indefensible."

It's unclear if the county will appeal the decision. County Counselor Beth Orwick told the Post-Dispatch that county officials "will be exploring all of our legal options ... and we are going to do what's best for the county."

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Trudy Ring

Trudy Ring is The Advocate’s senior politics editor and copy chief. She has been a reporter and editor for daily newspapers and LGBTQ+ weeklies/monthlies, trade magazines, and reference books. She is a political junkie who thinks even the wonkiest details are fascinating, and she always loves to see political candidates who are groundbreaking in some way. She enjoys writing about other topics as well, including religion (she’s interested in what people believe and why), literature, theater, and film. Trudy is a proud “old movie weirdo” and loves the Hollywood films of the 1930s and ’40s above all others. Other interests include classic rock music (Bruce Springsteen rules!) and history. Oh, and she was a Jeopardy! contestant back in 1998 and won two games. Not up there with Amy Schneider, but Trudy still takes pride in this achievement.
Trudy Ring is The Advocate’s senior politics editor and copy chief. She has been a reporter and editor for daily newspapers and LGBTQ+ weeklies/monthlies, trade magazines, and reference books. She is a political junkie who thinks even the wonkiest details are fascinating, and she always loves to see political candidates who are groundbreaking in some way. She enjoys writing about other topics as well, including religion (she’s interested in what people believe and why), literature, theater, and film. Trudy is a proud “old movie weirdo” and loves the Hollywood films of the 1930s and ’40s above all others. Other interests include classic rock music (Bruce Springsteen rules!) and history. Oh, and she was a Jeopardy! contestant back in 1998 and won two games. Not up there with Amy Schneider, but Trudy still takes pride in this achievement.