Harrah’s and RGJ, together again

Chances are Darlene Jesperson and Robert Hickman have never met. But at least one civil rights organization is taking up their causes as part of a new campaign against discrimination in the workplace.

Many may remember Jesperson, the bartender who was fired by Harrah’s of Reno in 2000 for refusing to wear makeup after a “personal best” dress code was adopted. The rule required women to duplicate a post-makeover photo (cosmetics and hair) when they reported to work. While Jesperson had earned accolades for her exemplary service during the 21 years prior to the policy’s implementation, she was promptly fired for lack of cosmetic compliance.

In 2004 she told a Las Vegas newspaper, CityLife, that wearing makeup had nothing to do with how she performed her job, and the cosmetics made her feel “painted” like a prostitute.

The career bartender sued Harrah’s for discrimination based on race or gender. (Jesperson is a lesbian.) On Dec. 28, 2004, a panel of three 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judges sided with the Nevada Supreme Court, ruling that Harrah’s now-defunct “personal best” dress code policy equally burdened men and women and therefore was not discriminatory.

Meanwhile, Hickman says he was fired illegally because he’s HIV-positive. He worked as a store manager for several Subway restaurants in Las Vegas and Henderson from November 2004 to February 2005. At one point, a store Hickman was managing had record sales.

However on Feb. 4, 2005—the very day he disclosed his HIV status to his employer, local franchise owner Donna Curry—he was fired.

Now Lambda Legal, a national organization that lobbies for the civil rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV/AIDS, has taken up both causes and is using them as part of a new media campaign: Blow the whistle on workplace discrimination.

On Feb. 2 Lambda filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Nevada on behalf of Hickman. The organization says firing Hickman was illegal and perpetuates discriminatory practices against those with HIV.

But Jesperson is the real darling of Lambda’s campaign. Last summer, Lamda lawyers again argued an appeal based on discrimination before the 9th Circuit, this time in front of the full court. The court’s decision has not yet been released.

At the beginning of February, Lambda began running “Shame on You Harrah’s” banner ads on Internet Web sites marketed to gays and lesbians, such as www.outinamerica.com, as well as gambling Web sites.

This is no small thing. According to the Human Rights Campaign, the buying power of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered Americans is estimated at around $610 million. The ads encourage people to sign a petition protesting Jesperson’s termination. So far, more than 6,000 have signed.

And while the group doesn’t plan to buy very many print advertisements, they were denied a half-page ad in the Super Bowl Sunday (Feb. 5) edition of the Reno Gazette-Journal. The ad was to feature the “Shame on You Harrah’s” banner with about 1,000 of the names of those who’ve signed the petition, Lambda spokesman Michael Adams says.

Calls to RG-J publisher Fred Hamilton were not returned. The Gazette-Journal has a history of rejecting some non-commercial ads. In June 1994, for instance, it refused to carry an insert used to promote an anti-gay initiative petition that was carried by at least 12 other newspapers around the state.