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Lawsuit could give gays job protection

Ford worker says he's suffered years of on-the-job abuse

Ruben Camp had just finished installing wires in a Taurus on the assembly line at Ford's Hapeville plant when, he says, he took a step back from the car, turned around and faced a co-worker pointing a switchblade at Camp's chest from a foot away.

It was last Wednesday, April 18. "My only reaction was to get out of his way," Camp says.

This was the same co-worker who in February 1998, Camp says, brought him a dead squirrel in a box, a couple of weeks later a dead bird. A month after that, the co-worker allegedly showed Camp photos of nude black woman from a porno magazine and told him, "This is what you need."

Over the years, Camp says, co-workers have called him "sissy," "faggot," "punk motherfucker," "AIDS infected," and "dick in the booty."

He's also been pushed down, strangled and almost run over with a forklift, he says.

When asked if he ever thought about looking for another job, he replies, "No way. I have the right to work at Ford Motors just like anybody else."

Instead, Camp dutifully reported each of these incidents to his supervisors and union representatives, but "they observed and knew about all these things and did nothing at all," Camp says. "They were very aware of what was going on but they never stepped in and did anything for me."

Camp kept a journal of every harassment, threat and physical assault he's encountered at the Ford factory dating back to 1996. That journal is now the basis for a lawsuit seeking $5 million in punitive damages from Ford and the seven co-workers who allegedly tormented him the most.

Camp's lawsuit is also one of the first cases brought against an employer in Georgia for discriminating against a worker because of sexual orientation.

During the past two years that Camp's attorney, Gail Mackinson, has investigated his case, she's tracked down workers at Ford plants in Michigan, Illinois and Kentucky who also claim they've been persecuted for being gay. Enough victims, she says, to put together a class action lawsuit against Ford. There's only one problem: the Civil Rights Act doesn't protect gays and lesbians.

In fact, there is no protection for gays and lesbians under state or federal law, allowing companies to fire employees because of their sexual orientation without fear of a lawsuit.

The reason Camp's case stands a chance is because he's been threatened with violence and physically assaulted by Ford co-workers.

"Gay people call me and tell me they were fired because they were gay, and I can't do anything about it," Mackinson says. "This is why Ruben's case is unique and stands to make legal history. He faced physical harm and violence, which gave us the cause of action, the right to go to court."

Mackinson hopes the suit, filed in Fulton County Superior Court, will go to trial before the end of the year. Attorneys for both sides will take depositions beginning in May.

Camp hopes the judge rules that it's illegal for any Georgia company to tolerate harassment based on sexual orientation. For the first time in state history, gays would enjoy equal protection under the law.

At the least, Mackinson wants Ford to train all of its employees in diversity and ensure that Camp won't be threatened again.

Ford spokeswoman Angie Clawson would not comment on Camp's allegations because of pending litigation, but she did say, "Ford definitely values diversity, including sexual orientation, and we're actively working to make our workplaces reflect that commitment."

Mackinson doesn't see it that way.

"It's absolutely outrageous considering the amount of notice [Camp] gave to the employer and their refusal to make a safe work environment for him," she says. "It was one of the defendants who pulled a knife on him the other night. Obviously he feels supported by Ford so much that he can still torment Ruben. This guy is at risk and they need to wake up. The company is obligated to do something about the kind of behavior Ruben is exposed to."

Harry Knox, executive director of gay and lesbian rights group Georgia Equality, hopes Camp's case will spur legislative action. For the past two years, Knox's group has unsuccessfully lobbied for state legislation that would offer gays and lesbians legal protection for the first time.

"We intend to ratchet up the pressure this year for next year's session of the Legislature," Knox says. Members of Georgia Equality were expected to picket the Ford plant Wednesday, April 25, during a shift change.

"Ford is trying to have it both ways," Knox says. "They market themselves as a diverse and inclusive company, but their actions do not follow their policy. The last thing I need is to walk up and down in front of the Ford Motor plant, but we don't have any choice. The company is not doing anything to protect him."??