Missouri police officer awarded $19M in discrimination suit after being told to tone down his 'gayness'

A Missouri police officer sued and was awarded $19 million in damages after he was told to "tone down the gayness" if he wanted to get a promotion.

Police Sgt. Keith Wildhaber filed a lawsuit against St. Louis County in 2017 alleging that he had been passed over for promotions multiple times despite receiving stellar performance reviews and support from immediate supervisors. The lawsuit alleges that in 2014, Wildhaber was told that "the command staff has a problem with your sexuality" by John Saracino, who was then a member of the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners.

"If you ever want to see a white shirt (i.e., get a promotion), you should tone down your gayness," Saracino told him.

Saracino has denied making the comment.

Related Video: Wide Gaps in Legal Protection for LGBT Workers

Wildhaber made multiple complaints to management, but when no action was taken he decided to file a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Missouri Commission on Human Rights in 2016.

'Tip of the iceberg': LGBT police officers say they've faced horrible discrimination, and now they're suing

A little more than a month after he filed the complaint, Wildhaber was reassigned to work the midnight shift in a station farther away from his home, the lawsuit alleges. He filed a subsequent complaint alleging unlawful retaliation and was issued a right to sue on each charge by the EEOC.

During the trial last week, a witness testified that police Capt. Guy Means called Wildhaber "fruity" and said he would never be promoted because he was “way too out there with his gayness and he needed to tone it down if he wanted a white shirt," the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Wildhaber said in court that the remark made him feel like he had "been punched in the gut," the Post-Dispatch reported.

"I was sickened by it," he testified. "I think I said, ‘I can’t believe we are having this conversation in 2014.’ It was devastating to hear."

The jury awarded Wildhaber $1.9 million in actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages on the discrimination allegation, per the Post-Dispatch, and an additional $999,000 in actual damages and $7 million in punitive damages for the alleged retaliation.

“We wanted to send a message,” the jury foreman, identified only as juror No. 4, told reporters. “If you discriminate, you are going to pay a big price. … You can’t defend the indefensible.”

In addition to the judgment, there are now calls for changes in the police department's leadership. Sam Page, the St. Louis County Executive, said in a statement Sunday that the county will appoint new members to the police board, which oversees the police chief.

“Our police department must be a place where every community member and every officer is respected and treated with dignity. Employment decisions in the department must be made on merit and who is best for the job,” Page said. “The time for leadership changes has come and change must start at the top.”

Follow N'dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Missouri cop gets $19M in anti-gay discrimination suit