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Former Country Club Hills Employee: I Was Humiliated, Demoted Because I'm Gay

COUNTRY CLUB HILLS, Ill. (CBS) -- The southern suburb of Country Club Hills is being sued by one its municipal employees, who is claiming he was humiliated and discriminated against by the suburb's mayor and former city manager because he is gay.

As WBBM Newsradio's Bob Conway reports, the lawsuit was filed by Robert "Tony" Harper, who was hired as an assistant theater director for Country Club Hills in 2007, and was later promoted to the city's director of marketing.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio's Bob Conway reports


Country Club Hills Mayor Dwight Welch and former City Manager Henrietta Turner are named in the lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday in Cook County Circuit Court.

In the lawsuit, Harper claims Turner made offensive comments on his sexual orientation every day, once warning him not to be "too gay," and using homophobic slurs in front of the city's business sponsors to embarrass him.

Turner allegedly told Harper in front of co-workers he was not invited to city events because she wanted to invite people she could date, and put a card referring to him as a woman on his desk for the office to see, the suit claims.

"I felt like crying whenever Ms. Turner revealed my sexual orientation in a loud, overt and disapproving manner," Harper said in a 2011 filing with the Illinois Department of Human Rights. "I felt like Oprah Winfrey in 'The Color Purple.' "

Harper further claims he and his then-partner James Abernathy, also a Country Club Hills employee, were berated for trying to apply for domestic partner insurance benefits in 2010.

Harper said in the Human Rights Department complaint that he was later called into a meeting with Mayor Welch, where he asked about insurance benefits. Welch, the suit alleged, replied that it was an election season and he could not have "silly stuff" going on.

Before Harper and Abernathy brought the issue to state officials, they claim Mayor Welch dismissed their complaints about the ongoing harassment told them to bring it up with Turner.

Turner later told them any future harassment allegations would result in him being "sent to Siberia," according to the suit and the previous filing.

Harper says after he and Abernathy filed their complaints with state's Department of Human Rights, he was demoted to a job outside city hall with a vague job description. Country Club Hills city officials then allegedly bad-mouthed Harper to city sponsors and his business contacts, damaging his career and professional relationships, according to the suit.

The suit also claims city officials tried to force him to take part in political activity on city time while working on the 2009 Taste of Southland event -- a violation of city policy. The suit claims Welch and Turner told him to ask the event's vendors and sponsors to make checks payable to the mayor's Citizens for Welch organization.

Harper says the stress at work contributed to his 2012 divorce from Abernathy, and that he was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in late 2011.

The seven-count suit seeks at least $5.4 million in total damages, and claims sexual harassment and discrimination in violation of the state's Human Rights Act, intentional infliction of emotional distress, retaliation, breach of contract and tortuous interference with a contract.

A message from the Sun-Times Media Wire seeking comment from Welch's office was not immediately returned Tuesday night.

The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.

(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2012. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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