Couple claims they were driven out of workplace for being 'too gay'
They say manager told them some colleagues were offended by use of the word 'wife'
A lesbian couple says they were driven out of their jobs as paramedics and firefighters in a small Alberta town for being "too gay."
Sheri and Alyssa Monk say they were discriminated against and expected to follow different rules than their heterosexual colleagues, saying they were told not to talk about their personal lives at work and that the word "wife" was off limits.
The women have filed a complaint with Alberta's Human Rights Commission about how they were treated while working in the emergency services detachment in Pincher Creek, a town of 3,700 people about two hours south of Calgary.
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"There's just this consistent double standard," Sheri told Go Public during an interview. "If you are not in the closet and hiding it, you are seen as flaunting it."
According to a woman who counsels workplaces on sexual diversity, LGBTQ employees are sometimes considered outsiders and isolated — especially in small towns or in traditionally masculine jobs.
"There's lots of places where we continue to struggle," says Pam Krause, who works at the Centre for Sexuality in Calgary.
'This isn't because you're gay, but...'
The Monks were one of five married couples working at the detachment in May 2017, when they say they were called into the office of then deputy chief Margaret Cox, who has since retired.
"The conversation started with, 'This isn't because you're gay, but there are some people that will never accept same-sex marriage and are offended by the use of the word wife," according to Sheri.
She and her spouse both worked as paramedics and volunteer firefighters.
They started dating in 2014 but didn't come out to their colleagues until after they moved in together a year later. They married in 2016.
The couple says Cox told them to stop talking about their personal lives at work.
"We asked would this apply to everybody … this manager said, 'No, because you're the only couple we've had complaints about.' We were also the only gay couple," Sheri said.
"We approached people and apologized for being too gay. We wanted to know what we had done wrong."
After the conversation with Cox, the couple started recording meetings with managers.
In one recording, the women's direct supervisor seems to admit there is a double standard.
"You've been very open in sharing your relationship and coming out," EMS Capt. Jennifer Fisher-Sundberg can be heard saying on a recording. "So, um, and I think public displays of affection, whether it's physical or verbal stand out more — because you're both women — than it does in the heterosexual population."
'We dropped F-bombs'
The couple says no topic was off limits at the detachment — until they came out to their colleagues.
"Have we dropped F-bombs and made inappropriate jokes? Yes. But I can say with absolute certainty that was not out of place in that workplace culture," Sheri said.
The women turned to the deputy chief's boss and the head of the detachment — Chief David Cox, who is married to Margaret Cox — to ask if everyone could get diversity training and for clarification on the rules.
"When we asked if everybody would be getting the same set of rules we only met resistance," Alyssa said.
Complaint 'is being processed'
They also turned to Pincher Creek's mayor, Don Anderberg, and council members for help, but were told to take their complaint to the Pincher Creek Emergency Services Commission instead. Anderberg, and David Cox were members of the commission's board. Attempts were made to contact Anderberg, but he did not respond by deadline.
In a statement posted on Dec. 5 on the town's website, the administration addresses the situation involving the Monks and Pincher Creek Emergency Services saying, "We wish to assure our residents that the complaint is an employment/personnel issue … and is being processed in accordance to employment best practices."
The statement, signed by the mayor and council, also says the town is a separate organization from Emergency Services with different management. It says the town won't comment further, in an effort to respect the privacy of the people involved.
'Religious sentiments being offended'
The Monks quit their jobs on July 1, 2017. They weren't fired and didn't face disciplinary action.
"We were working at a place where we weren't allowed to acknowledge our marriage, our personal lives or our family lives and we were the only ones that had to live and work that way," Sheri said.
According to a copy of their human rights complaint provided to Go Public by the couple, one co-worker objected, in part, to the pair's "public displays of affection," to their use of the word "babe" with one another, to conversations "suggestive" of their sex life, and to another colleague's birthday card signed, "your favourite lesbians."
Another coworker raised concerns about comments including, "how much they love each other and how wonderful the other person is."
Former coworker James Raffan says the Monks behaved no different than any other couple and he has "no doubt" they were singled out because they're gay.
"There was — and presumably still is — a very strong conservative bent within the department itself … It's a small southern Alberta town. It's to be expected," he told Go Public.
He says staff often talked about their personal lives, religion, politics and sex and it wasn't an issue. Nor was it a problem when his wife would visit him at work and they would talk about their personal lives while making breakfast together.
What he did hear, he says, were complaints about the Monks.
"Their being a lesbian couple became the centre of conversation more often ... them being in the workplace and other people's religious sentiments being offended by their presence became more of a source of conflict."
Department denies discrimination
Chief Cox declined to answer Go Public's questions about the case saying it is now before the human rights commission. His wife did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
According to the human rights complaint, the emergency services department "denies any discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or other protected grounds pursuant to the Alberta Human Rights Act as alleged or at all."
In a letter signed by Margaret Cox, dated June 22, 2017, Alyssa is told her employment is in jeopardy because some coworkers were feeling bullied because her "silence, disrespectful actions and lack of team participation at work exude open hostility and anger."
Alyssa says the first time she saw the letter was after she quit and filed the human rights complaint.
Krause says it's not uncommon for people in Sheri and Alyssa's situation to feel they have no choice but to leave their jobs.
"The problem is how long can you go on, fight, or just feel excluded ... eventually you're just gonna leave and that to me is the saddest part," said Krause, whose organization is hired by companies to do diversity training.
"We don't want to ever interrupt people's religious values or whatever the values that drive belief, but you actually can't openly discriminate against LGBTQ people in Canada."
After quitting their jobs, the Monks say they struggled financially for months. They've had to put the Pincher Creek house they live in with their two teenaged sons up for sale and are considering relocating.
"Even though gay marriage is legal in Canada … you can still lose your job and your savings and your house for loving who you love," Sheri said.
She got a full-time job in October and is now commuting to a city three hours away for work.
If the women win their case at the human rights commission, they could get a financial settlement, but it could take years for a decision.
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- An earlier version of this piece stated Sheri Monk was a firefighter. In fact, she was a paramedic and a volunteer firefighter. An earlier version of this piece stated Margaret Cox was a member of the Pincher Creek Emergency Services Commission. In fact, she was not a member. An earlier version of this story stated Sheri Monk resigned May 30, 2017. In fact, she resigned July 1 of that year.Dec 02, 2018 8:10 PM MT
With files from Ana Komnenic