Jesse Jackson's Gay Staffer Not Backing Down On Sexual Harassment Charges
America is like a quilt, he famously said, where many patches -- the white, the Hispanic and the gay, among the rest -- are woven and held together by a common thread. When Jesse Jackson alluded to the quilt metaphor during his address to the 1984 Democratic National Convention, he probably didn't expect 27 years later to be taken to court over sexual harassment charges filed against him by one of his gay staffers.
Tommy R. Bennett worked for the activist's political action committee, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, from July 2007 until Dec. 23, 2009. Over that time, Bennett worked as the national director of community affairs, while also subbing in as the de facto national field director and Jackson's travel assistant.
The close work with Jackson exposed Bennett to what he alleges is the reverend's lascivious lifestyle, including his many trysts with his mistresses. But in addition to being forced to help Jackson cover his tracks after his affairs, Bennett also asserts that he was sexually harassed by Jackson. Bennett's first allegation of harassment by Jackson was in 2010, when he filed a complaint with the City of Chicago Commission on Human Relations. News of that filing was broken by the Windy City Times in April.
Jackson denied Bennett's claims, but Bennett raised the stakes by filing suit with the Cook County Circuit Court last week. His complaint, which was obtained by the Courthouse News Service, depicts an incident in which Bennett was summoned to Jackson's hotel room during an evening at the O'Hare Hilton in Chicago.
The complaint states: "When Mr. Bennett arrived, Rev. Jackson was dressed only in his underwear (briefs) and a V-neck shirt. While Mr. Bennett was taking notes, Rev. Jackson had an erection and was stroking his penis with his hand in his underwear. Rev. Jackson's breathing was accelerated. Before Mr. Bennett left, Rev. Jackson stated that white folks took the word 'gay' and gave the word its own definition. Rev. Jackson further stated that he was a real poor child in North Carolina and his name was first Jesse Burns, and then Jesse Robinson and then he became Jesse Jackson. Rev. Jackson stated that he played football and there was a gay high school teacher who took Rev. Jackson under his wings and told him that he needed education to go along with football. Rev. Jackson said 'from that gay teacher, I got a good grade, I got to use his car, I got ten dollars and I got my dick sucked.' Rev. Jackson said, 'that's not gay, that is surviving.' Mr. Bennett understood this to mean that Rev. Jackson wanted him to perform oral sex on him. Mr. Bennett left the room."
The alleged pickup was just one of several incidents Bennett found humiliating. He also claims that Jackson asked him to apply body lotion to his thighs and would regularly ask him to escort his female conquests. Bennett also claims that he was specifically targeted because of his openly gay lifestyle. Finally, Bennett asserts that sessions at Rainbow PUSH would call for the elimination of gays from the office premises. (Jackson himself was not named as participating in such incidents.)
The purported mistreatment came to an end two days before Christmas 2009, when Bennett was let go because of what he was told was a loss in funding. When Rainbow PUSH replaced him with someone else, he contacted the Human Rights Commission, claiming harassment and wrongful termination. He is now in court seeking $98,300 in back pay, front pay and lost benefits, and $350,000 in punitive damages for sexual harassment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
When contacted by The Chicago Tribune, Jackson and his representatives could not be reached for comment. Should the charges be proven true, they would be the second high-profile public indiscretion for Jackson, who in 2001 admitted to having a child out of wedlock with a female staffer. They would also represent a fall from grace with the gay community, whom Jackson has publicly supported in such events as 1987's National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
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Dan Fastenberg has more than a decade of experience working as a journalist. Most recently he was a reporter with TIME Magazine covering politics with analyst Mark Halperin. Previously, he was a writer for the Thomson Reuters news service's Latin America desk. He was also a reporter and associate editor for the Buenos Aires Herald while living in South America. Follow Dan on Twitter. Email Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Add Dan to your Google+ circles.more...