In a document filled with stunning allegations, Tommy R. Bennett has filed a complaint with the City of Chicago Commission on Human Relations against the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., and the minister’s Chicago-based organization, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, claiming, among other things, harassment and termination on the basis of Bennett’s sexual orientation.
Rev. Jackson has a long record of support for LGBT rights, including during his runs for U.S. president and his speech at the LGBT March on Washington in 1987. This is believed to be the first time an allegation has come forward claiming he was involved in sexual orientation harassment and discrimination.
In the complaint, Bennett—who worked at the Rainbow Coalition from July 11, 2007 through Dec. 23, 2009, as the national director of community affairs—says that his sexual orientation was known throughout the workplace primarily because of his side job: being “Aruba Tommy” on the nationally syndicated radio talk program The Tom Joyner Morning Show.
Bennett claims that he experienced discrimination almost immediately after he started the job, saying that Caroline Wiggins, the membership and volunteer coordinator, complained to Jackson that she did not wish to work with Bennett because he is gay. After Wiggins was allowed to work under the field director, Rev. Gregory Seal Livingston, she allegedly said that she did not have to answer to Bennett. (Wiggins is no longer with the coalition. Windy City Times attempted several times to speak with Livingston about the matter, but had no response.) In the complaint, Bennett says that “no investigation or action was taken in response” to his complaining about Wiggins.
However, the most explosive charges revolve around Jackson himself. First, Bennett claims that at an all-staff meeting in 2008, he requested an LGBT-themed table for the national convention—and was flatly denied. When Bennett questioned why there could not be a table, Jackson allegedly “cursed at Mr. Bennett in front of all of the staff, and Rev. Jackson was visibly upset during the rest of the meeting.”
Things allegedly took a more disturbing turn after Bennett also took over the duties of Jackson’s travel assistant where Bennett says he was required to perform “humiliating” tasks. According to the complaint, in May 2008 Bennett was not allowed to accompany Jackson to Tanzania because Jackson was allegedly unhappy with the ways Bennett packed his items.
Bennett also claims that he had to escort women to Jackson’s room and “clean up his room after sexual intercourse with women. Mr. Bennett believes he was forced to do these tasks due to his sexual orientation,” adding that he had to escort women to such places as the Sheraton Hotel in New York and the Wynn Hotel and Resort in Las Vegas. Bennett claims that he let Jackson know that he “was uncomfortable cleaning up his hotel rooms, escorting women to his hotel room, being summoned to his hotel room after hours or packing his clothes.”
Things reached an apex later in 2008, when Bennett says he “was summoned to Rev. Jackson’s hotel room” at the Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport Hotel. Bennett claims that he was eventually instructed to apply cream to Jackson, who “had a rash between his legs.” Bennett says that he refused, resulting in Jackson allegedly calling Bennett a “little motherfucker.”
Bennett then states that another time at the same hotel, Jackson summoned him at 1 a.m. to take notes. The complaint states, “When Mr. Bennett arrived, Rev. Jackson was dressed only in his briefs and a v-neck t-shirt.” Bennett alleges Jackson was sexually excited. Asked by Windy City Times how he came to this conclusion, Bennett said, “I could tell by his look. His whole demeanor had changed. His breathing pattern had changed.”
The complaint continues: “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, ‘[F]rom 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, ‘[T]hat’s not gay, that is surviving.'” Bennett alleges this meant Rev. Jackson wanted sex, but that Bennett then left the room.
Bennett also makes a claim involving an intern. In 2009, said intern reportedly wanted to accompany Bennett one night to Club Escape, a gay nightspot. A month later, the intern allegedly said that Bennett took him to a gay bar and propositioned him, and that he, Bennett and two of Bennett’s friends smoked marijuana, instigating an investigation. Bennett says that he ended up on paid leave and that the drug test came back negative. He also says he never received the findings of the investigation.
The complaint concludes with Bennett saying that he received a letter Dec. 23, 2009, saying that he was being terminated “due to lack of funding.” However, Bennett claims that several people were hired after his termination.
In a demand letter accompanying the complaint, Bennett said he wanted, among other things, $98,300 for back pay, front pay and loss of benefits; $350,000 for emotional distress and punitive damages; and an amendment of Rainbow PUSH’s non-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
Windy City Times left a message with Nigel F. Telman, a partner at the Chicago branch of the law firm Proskauer Rose and the Rainbow PUSH attorney listed on the complaint’s notice of filing. However, Proskauer Rose’s communications director contacted the newspaper shortly after to say that Telman had no comment on the matter. When asked if Telman even received the complaint, WCT again was told, “No comment.”
In a recent interview with WCT, Bennett said that he is fully prepared for the possible response from Jackson and/or the Rainbow Coalition, adding, “That’s one of the points I want to make. How many times has this happened to us? It’s like being raped and having it unreported. People are so afraid of these giants in our community. People won’t report it and won’t file lawsuits. So many people are afraid of [Jackson]. I can’t walk in fear like that. So many people are being discriminated against—being laid off with this false pretense of downsizing.”
When asked why he stayed as long as he did, Bennett responded, “Number one, I enjoyed what I did and I thought things would get better. He was really not a bad person to work for; it was the staff he had around him.”
However, of course, Bennett did acknowledge that things disintegrated once he became Jackson’s travel assistant: “[Jackson] used me as a scapegoat because he was dating two women. … However, because I knew what was going on, he told his family and friends that I wrote a letter [outing one of the girlfriends], which was not true. By doing that, it looked like I was the bad person. At that point, [one of the alleged mistresses] told [Jackson] to get rid of me.”
Bennett said the lowest point for him involved the situation with Clinkscale’s intern. “Clinkscale was the national director of sports. It was the intern’s last day. They said I was out smoking weed with the boy. They did a drug test and the test came back [negative]. They have witnesses who I brought in who said [the intern] was in a group with us. He was just one of those young 24-year-old guys who went to a gay club, enjoyed himself and got scared.”
When asked if he would accept his job back if offered, Bennett initially answered “You know? I probably would,” before amending: “But not under those conditions. I would refuse, as a gay man, to work under … I would starve before I work under homophobic conditions.
“I never applied for travel assistant. I was the national community affairs director. Things didn’t blow up until I had to go his house at 4 a.m. and pack his clothes, buy his underwear, buy his deodorant, get his Viagra and Cialis, and clean his room. That’s when things got nuts.”
Bennett also mentioned Livingston, saying, “When the commission asked Rev. Livingston, ‘How was the atmosphere for Tommy at Rainbow PUSH?, he [said], ‘Very hypocritical.'”
If he had Jackson alone for five minutes and could ask him one question that he had to answer, Bennett said it would be “Why do you let homophobic people work around you at a civil-rights organization?”
Bennett said that his attorney is getting his employee files, adding that he never had an employee evaluation the whole time he was there.