Same-Sex Couple Tries to Rebuild Life in Tennessee After Facing Anti-Gay Employment Discrimination

AJ Celento had, of course, heard stories before of LGBTQ people who experienced discrimination – people who were fired from their jobs, kicked out of their homes, or denied service in restaurants. But he thought it was rare, something that happened to other people, not something that would happen to him. So when he did face employment discrimination – fired from his job because of his sexual orientation, just a few months ago – he could hardly believe it.

Last fall AJ began working at Demos’, a restaurant in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and almost immediately the staff took a liking to him. They praised his work ethic and applauded his vast knowledge of the industry, gleaned from his years of experience in guest services and restaurant management, including at the Hard Rock Hotel, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Disney. He enjoyed the position and felt good about his choice to work there.

But despite the positive comments, AJ quickly began to understand that something was off. During his shifts he was repeatedly asked about his martial status. Every trainer at the restaurant asked at least once about his family life, what his wife was like, and the questions were pointed and specific.

The questions mirrored ones AJ was asked in his initial interview for the company, when he met with Director of Operations Bill Worman.

“Now let’s talk about you and your personal life! Are you married?” Worman said at the end of AJ’s interview. AJ nodded, and the follow-ups were a barrage: “What’s her name? What does she do? Is she assisting you? How long have you been married? Do you have kids? I need to know your personal life.” The full account is shared in an article by Out and About Nashville, well worth reading in its entirety. 

AJ is married – but he is married to a man, Joshua Corey. The couple has been together for more than 18 years. 

They met in Nashville – AJ was working in the music industry and Josh was a performer. AJ and his mother took a ride on the boat where Josh was performing, which is how the men met. Since then, both of their careers have wound through multiple fields and multiple states, from Rochester, NY and back to Nashville, where they live now. 

“Life has been up and down,” AJ told Freedom for All Americans. “We worked for ourselves for a while because we’re both creative people. But things have changed. And right now, we’re just looking to live a stable life.”

* * * 

It only took a few weeks of repeated questions about his marriage for AJ to explain to his co-workers that his spouse is a man – and that’s when everything changed. 

AJ’s trainer reacted immediately, and she wasn’t happy. She told AJ to inform Bill Worman of this within the next 24 hours, and sure enough, following an email to Bill, he and AJ met up the next day. 

“At that meeting, he asked me, ‘If you know our values, and that we don’t condone your lifestyle, why would you want to work here?’” AJ told Out and About Nashville. “I said, ‘Because that doesn’t impact my job, and I like the company, and I can do a good job for your company.’ And he replied, ‘I don’t understand why you’d want to take this position knowing that we are against what you stand for.’”

Following the meeting, AJ was forced to sign a disciplinary warning taking responsibility for being “dishonest” about his marriage. 

AJ was, of course, aware of Demos’ reputation. When he applied for the job his recruiter stressed that it was a “very Christian” company. That didn’t bother AJ – he grew up Catholic and in high school attended a Gospel Christian Church and was an avid Bible reader. He and Josh are both Christians.

Additionally, he had read stories of Demos’ management’s hostility toward issues of LGBTQ equal treatment. But a job is a job – and AJ, who had only recently moved to the area, needed a job, and his experience was perfect for the Demos’ role. His personal life didn’t factor into his ability to perform the job well.

After being asked repeatedly to describe his wife, AJ told his trainer that his spouse – his partner of 18 years – was a man. As a result he was forced to sign a disciplinary document admitting his “dishonesty” and weeks after was fired. “It’s not a good fit,” they said.

It didn’t matter. Within weeks, as AJ approached the end of his 90-day introductory period with the restaurant (after which he would receive a signing bonus and be eligible for paid time off), he was called into the back office by his trainer again, who told him that he was fired. “It’s not a good fit,” she said. AJ would not be able to stay on staff, and he wouldn’t be able to ultimately run the restaurant.

Out and About Nashville reported that when AJ called his recruiter, the recruiter told him that the Demos’ staff asked whether the recruiting agency was aware that AJ was married to a man, another indication of the blatant nature of this discrimination. 

And they weren’t done yet – a few days after AJ was terminated, he and his husband Josh were invited back to the restaurant for the location’s weekly meeting of the Chaplains of America program. Demos’ call insinuated that if AJ and Josh attended the meeting, AJ might be able to get his job back. 

That’s not what happened. Instead, AJ and Josh were asked to meet with a Chaplain, who asked about their lives (while steering pointedly clear of questions about their marriage). The meeting seemed to be a way to discourage AJ and Josh from bringing legal action against Demos’. 

* * *

Now, AJ and Josh are still reeling from this clear instance of discrimination. AJ has been out of work for months now, although he’s advanced through the hiring process at several different restaurants. The couple lost their health insurance, their income, and their financial stability, and while they’ve been touched by the immense support they’ve received from family, friends, and members of their community, including their church, they know that this should never have happened to them – or to anyone else.

LGBTQ people lack protections from discrimination in a majority of states, including Tennessee. Even worse in Tennessee is the effect of HB600, a law passed in 2011 that nullifies any local LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinances, including protections in Nashville, a city with a vibrant and increasingly visible LGBTQ community.

Without protections, LGBTQ people lack state-level legal recourse when they are subjected to discrimination. AJ’s initial conversations with attorneys – and his own background with the law from his time as a police officer in the early stages of his career – illustrated for him that legal action would be an expensive uphill climb. 

Now on top of the initial firing, AJ is seeing the company come after his character, with Demos’ staff speaking to press about supposed performance issues. There are only two documented disciplinary actions in AJ’s file, however – his admission of ‘dishonesty’ about his marriage, and his termination. “It’s a very militant company, and everything gets documented,” AJ explained. “They produce write-ups to substantiate anything that goes wrong. But for me, they just have those two write-ups. If I had done anything else wrong, it would be documented.”

Now AJ is speaking out against discrimination and standing up for the need for LGBTQ-inclusive non-discrimination protections in Tennessee and nationwide. He’s working to underline that discrimination like this impacts people all of the time and to stand up against it happening again. 

“I had always been pretty oblivious about discrimination in the LGBT community. I guess I just never really paid attention to it. My take was that discrimination just didn’t really happen – never in a million years was I worried about this at all. … My biggest cause right now, in addition to salvaging our lives, is to pay it forward and make sure no one else has to go through what we’re going through.” – AJ Celento

“I had always been pretty oblivious about discrimination in the LGBT community,” AJ said. “I guess I just never really paid attention to it. My take was that discrimination just didn’t really happen – never in a million years was I worried about this at all.”

“My biggest cause right now, in addition to salvaging our lives, is to pay it forward and make sure no one else has to go through what we’re going through.”

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