by John Wright
For John Gaspari, it’s been a difficult three years since moving from Chicago to Houston. After relocating for what he hoped would be his final job—at Houston-based FMC Technologies—the now-39-year-old Gaspari got a rude awakening.
During his 2½ years at FMC, Gaspari alleges he was subject to constant harassment and discrimination based on his sexual orientation. After filing a lawsuit against the company in 2013, he was terminated this January in what he called an act of retaliation.
Two weeks later, in an unrelated but equally as devastating turn of events, Gaspari was walking home from F Bar when he was jumped by three men who yelled “get the fag,” before beating, robbing, and shooting him.
Two months and four surgeries later, Gaspari is on the road to recovery.
And now, he’s speaking out, hoping to harness media attention from the attack—one of several violent incidents in Montrose of late—to draw attention to his lawsuit, which is languishing in federal court.
Gaspari and his attorney say the lawsuit illustrates the need for local, state, and federal LGBT job protections—and highlights the actions of a corrupt, homophobic judge. “Hopefully, I can be part of a movement to make some change and get some publicity so other people can see that this kind of stuff still goes on today,” Gaspari says.
Lucky to Be Alive
Gaspari was walking home from F Bar at about 3 a.m. on February 15, near 1400 Genesee St., when he noticed a white car drive past.
The driver turned around and tried to run Gaspari over before jumping a curb. When three men got out and ran toward him, Gaspari unsuccessfully tried to flee. The men tackled him, punching and kicking him as he lay in the street. “I was shot once, and I don’t remember anything else,” Gaspari says. “I didn’t wake up for two days. I woke up as John Doe in the hospital, and nobody knew who I was. My dogs were home alone, locked up in the house. My family didn’t know in Chicago, friends didn’t know. Nobody knew where I was.”
Gaspari is convinced the incident was an antigay hate crime. In addition to the gay slur, he points to the fact that although they took his wallet and cell phone, the suspects didn’t take some of his jewelry, including a gold necklace and diamond earrings.
A witness called 911 and reported the license plate number from the vehicle, which police recovered and determined had been stolen. But the suspects have not been found. “We’re still looking for any tips that the public might be able to provide,” HPD spokesperson Kese Smith says.
Smith says investigators don’t have enough information to classify the incident as an antigay hate crime. “It might unfortunately just be a matter of him walking alone at three o’clock in the morning and being perceived as an easy target,” Smith says. “We’re not ruling out [a hate crime], but we can’t determine that at this time.”
Gaspari says he doesn’t think HPD is treating the case as a priority, saying investigators still haven’t taken a DNA sample from him to match with blood found on shoes recovered from the car.
Gaspari was shot twice—once in the chest and once in the back. The shockwave from one of the bullets blasted a hole in his ureter, the tube that connects the bladder and kidney. “They said if the bullet would have been over a millimeter or two in the other direction, I would have died instantly, and if the guy had not found me, called 911, and waited until the paramedics got there, I would have bled to death,” Gaspari says.
Gaspari is expected to make a full recovery, but it could take up to 10 months.
A GoFundMe page raised $3,200 for Gaspari’s expenses, but he says that was only a drop in the bucket, especially since he’d lost his job two weeks before the attack.
Taking a Stand
Born and raised in Chicago, Gaspari worked in the automotive and entertainment industries, earning a master’s degree in management, before being hired by FMC Technologies as a global supplier-development engineer. FMC provides equipment and services to oil and gas companies and employs nearly 20,000 people worldwide.
According to Gaspari’s lawsuit, on his first day of work, his department manager stared at his earrings and walked away. He was later told not to wear earrings even though women could do so.
Over the next several months, Gaspari’s supervisors and co-workers called him “fag,” “fashionista,” “gurl,” and “sister,” the lawsuit alleges. They mockingly flicked their wrists at him and told him to “try the House of Guys,” a reference to the well-known House of Pies on Kirby. When Gaspari complained, he was retaliated against, according to his attorney, Angela Alioto of San Francisco. Alioto says Gaspari was “sent to a cubby corner and did a menial job far below what he was supposed to be doing.”
FMC Technologies spokesman Patrick Kimball says he couldn’t comment on specific allegations because the lawsuit is pending. “I can say we expect the case to be resolved with a ruling in our favor,” Kimball says. “We’re committed to responsible business conduct, and we have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to discrimination, harassment, or retaliation.”
FMC Technologies received an unofficial score of 15 out of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s most recent Corporate Equality Index. According to HRC, FMC has a policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, but didn’t respond to HRC’s survey despite repeated attempts.
Kimball says FMC also prohibits discrimination based on gender identity, offers benefits to same-sex partners, and conducts diversity training on LGBT issues. “We’ve reached out to [HRC] to get our low [Equality Index score] updated,” Kimball says, explaining that it doesn’t accurately reflect FMC’s current policies and procedures.
Gaspari’s lawsuit, which includes two co-plaintiffs who allege sex and race discrimination, isn’t the first time FMC has faced such allegations. Alioto previously won a large judgment against FMC for racial discrimination. She represented seven African-American employees who sued after several hangman’s nooses were discovered at the company’s headquarters.
Alioto acknowledges that the lack of explicit sexual orientation protections in state and federal law makes Gaspari’s case more difficult. The lawsuit is based on federal law that prohibits discrimination based on gender stereotypes. “When you’re trying to ride a law that’s for gender that includes sexual orientation, if you have a person on the jury that does not want to give this person money because he’s gay, it’s much easier for that person to say no than if the law were specific to sexual orientation,” Alioto says. “My ultimate worry is always the jury.”
But in Gaspari’s case, Alioto says an even bigger challenge is presiding U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes.
Hughes has a long history of racially insensitive remarks and other questionable conduct, which has been well documented in the media. Alioto alleged that during a phone conversation about Gaspari’s case, Hughes asked whether she was representing a homosexual. “I said, ‘Yes, I am, your honor,’ and he hung up on me,” Alioto says. “To hear such bias from a judge sitting on the bench was shocking.”
Hughes also refused to allow Alioto to depose FMC representatives, instead directing the company’s attorneys to draft a proposed summary judgment—indicating he will likely rule in their favor. Fifteen months later, Hughes has yet to issue his ruling, and Alioto is resigned to an appeal.
Gaspari says that in Chicago, being gay was never an issue for him professionally, but he noticed a huge difference in the corporate climate in Houston. Although he’s been involved in charitable LGBT causes in the past, he’s now becoming more of an activist. “Once it’s actually happened to you, you try to stand up for what’s right,” he says. “Until it happens to you, you’re just kind of oblivious to it.”
John Wright is a freelance journalist based in Austin. Follow him on Twitter @lsqnews.