Recent court rulings have made it potentially illegal to use gender-stereotyping language at work, but adjusting to that shift may be harder than it seems. Here is what a court case involving construction workers, moist towelettes, and a bridge in New Orleans signals about the future of manhood in the workplace.
The case began in 2006 on a 5.4-mile length of Interstate 10 that crosses Lake Pontchartrain, near New Orleans, where a 28-year-old ironworker and novice structural welder named Kerry Woods was getting bullied by his supervisor, Chuck Wolfe. Both men worked for one of the largest building firms in New Orleans, Boh Brothers Construction Company, which had been hired to repair the bridge over Pontchartrain after Hurricane Katrina.
Wolfe was a swaggering, mouthy boss. He dropped f-bombs and called anyone who complained about the weather a “pussy.” As often happens in ultra-masculine work environments, there was a strong undercurrent of mock-homosexual horseplay on the job site. Wolfe was known to sneak up on his crew mates and jokingly hump them from behind.
Things escalated for Woods when he made an offhand admission to his co-workers one day during a break: that he preferred Wet Ones—pre-moistened antibacterial wipes—to toilet paper. Wolfe, the boss, considered this to be an embarrassingly effeminate thing to say out loud, and he never let Woods forget it, routinely calling Woods names like “princess,” “faggot,” and “motherfucker.” The conflict came to a head that summer, when Wolfe made off-color remarks about Kerry Woods’ wife and newborn daughter. Woods fumed, holding back tears behind his sunglasses.
Woods complained about Wolfe’s behavior to another Boh Brothers manager, who sent Woods home without pay, then had him re-assigned to a different construction site. The new site didn’t require as much welding, and before long, Kerry Woods was let go. He eventually took a job more than four hours from home, requiring him to live apart from his family. Wolfe “didn’t have to change nothing about his life,” Woods later protested, “and I had to change everything.”
Outraged, Woods looked for a remedy and filed a complaint with the local office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency responsible for enforcing Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s prohibition against job discrimination. The EEOC has a gigantic backlog of cases—75,000 of them—making it hugely selective about which complaints it pursues, let alone brings to court. But in Woods’ grievance against Boh Brothers, the EEOC saw an important principle at stake, and it vigorously pursued the case.
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