Photo courtesy of Mohamed Abdou
Lead Organizer Chantel Watkins speaks at a One Fair Wage rally. Photo: Chantel Watkins.
When Mohamed Abdou was on the airplane taking a one-way flight from Egypt to the United States, he had a vision of what his future here might look like: “In six years I would find a boyfriend and start a family and have a little kid,” he tells Pride Source via phone from his home in Hamtramck.
Though Abdou has been in Michigan for six years, that vision has yet to pan out. Where he finds himself instead is out of a job. He was fired for being gay, he alleges, and filed a charge of discrimination with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Abdou, 33, was fired last year from Caniff Liberty Academy on Oct. 29, his birthday. He worked at the academy as an English as a Second Language (ESL) coach.
In a termination letter dated Oct. 29, 2021 and signed by Dr. Cory J. Merante, the Human Resources Manager for Education Management and Networks (EMAN), Merante writes that reasons for Abdou’s firing include “inappropriate language in front of students” and “inappropriate images on your phone seen by students.”
Abdou denies these claims. Instead, he says, he believes he was fired for being gay.
A call to EMAN found that Merante no longer works at the EMAN office, but does work for Caniff Liberty Academy. Attempts to reach Merante were unsuccessful. A phone call and email to the Office of Public School Academies for comment were not returned by press time.
Abdou was initially hired to teach at Oakland International Academy, which, like Caniff Liberty, is an EMAN school, in January 2020. He says the OIA was initially pleased with his work and work ethic and renewed his contract. The following year, however, the school hired a new teacher who, Abdou says, told others at the school that she suspected Abdou was gay. He does not believe that this teacher was trying to get him in trouble or get him fired. However, once the rumor started to spread, Abdou says he felt a change among his coworkers.
Abdou says that “school employees started treating me in a different way” and that people questioned him about his position on homosexuality. After being subjected to similar lines of questioning when he lived in Egypt, he says, “I just don’t want to answer those questions anymore.”
Abdou left Egypt because gays there are persecuted and tortured. As a part of mandatory military service for men beginning at 18 years of age, Abdou says he was subjected to “anal virginity tests,” a practice that has no medical basis but is used to weed out and intimidate homosexuals. While Abdou officially came to the U.S. to study at Wayne State University, he applied for and received asylum.
And so he answered truthfully: “I just told them that it’s OK to be gay. What’s wrong with that?”
Once he began noticing a pattern of his coworkers treating him differently, he says he approached the school principal. Although the principal seemed sympathetic, Abdou says he was discouraged from filing a complaint with EMAN. Over the summer, that principal left and was replaced by Mohamed Elnatour, a less sympathetic figure, Abdou says.
The advice that he got from Elnatour was “try to be professional” and “try not to give anybody a reason to say something” about Abdou being gay. Abdou claims he was told “how bad I am," that “you need to change who you are” and that he was a poor role model for kids.
“He didn’t like the way I dress,” Abdou says. “The little gay touch in the colors maybe. He told me you’ve got to change the way you dress. I’ve been dressing this way for a year and a half and nobody told me anything.”
“The only thing I could do is file a complaint with HR,” Abdou says, adding that he felt like he was in danger of losing his job. A meeting with Merante from HR, Abdou says, led to a misconduct notice about talking politics at work, something Abdou denies aside from when someone from the school “quizzed him” about the Quran. “I didn’t even answer his questions,” Abdou says.
Abdou says that Merante told him, “We have complaints from other teachers that you’re a problem here so we’re going to move you to Caniff Liberty Academy in Hamtramck.”
The principal at Caniff Liberty, Abdou says, “gave me a very disrespectful, icy treatment.” “He didn’t really get to know me or work with me or see what I can bring to Caniff,” Abdou says. “He knew, and I knew that it was a matter of days” before Abdou would likely be let go.
“I tried to work so hard not to give them a reason (to fire me),” he says. Abdou worked at OIA for 18 months and CLA for only 50 days.
The EMAN employee handbook states that employees must report discrimination “that employee believes does or may constitute harassment or discrimination of any nature, including but not limited to sexual harassment, sexual discrimination, age discrimination, racial discrimination, religious discrimination or any other discrimination.”
“EMAN harassed and ultimately terminated Mohamed due to his sexual orientation,” says Jack W. Schulz, Abdou’s lawyer. “Federal law protects LGBT individuals from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation. In short, [EMAN] harassed and terminated Mohamed solely because he is gay. Their bigotry is unlawful.”
Schulz, who is based in Detroit, was referred to Abdou’s case by a colleague.
“Shockingly, the issue of whether or not an employer can legally terminate an individual due to their sexual orientation was unsettled until last year,” Schulz continues. “In the 2021 Bostock case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Title VII covered sexual orientation and, therefore, it is unlawful to discriminate against an employee based exclusively on their sexual orientation. Phrased differently, as of last year, federal law now protects LGBT individuals from discrimination by private and public employers.”
Currently Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act does not protect LGBTQ+ employees from discrimination. However, there is a case pending in the Michigan Supreme Court regarding this issue. Schulz says a decision is likely later this year.