By Anna Merlan
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Bilal El-Amine, 33, thought he was on a roll when he landed a $20-an-hour freelance gig at Avon Products, Inc., last fall. El-Amine recalls that he quickly pleased his boss by skillfully proofreading the company's brochures, checking product numbers for everything from mascara to Teletubbies. An employment agency had placed El-Amine at Avon, and he says his supervisor had invited him to stay on after his trial period ended. But on October 21, 1998 seven weeks after he started at Avon El-Amine got sacked without an explanation.
El-Amine began to believe that his dismissal was related to his involvement in a vigil for Matthew Shepard, the gay college student who was brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyoming. El-Amine had spent the night of October 19 locked in a jail cell after cops arrested him and nearly 100 other activists for disorderly conduct at the midtown protest. El-Amine missed a day of work, told his boss what had occurred, and was unemployed one day later.
But El-Amine's tale is hardly a clear-cut case of alleged discrimination. Avon insists that homophobia has nothing to do with why El-Amine lost his job. An attorney who El-Amine hired, Robert W. Ottinger, says Avon gave him a far more bizarre explanation: El-Amine lost his job because he masturbated in the office bathroom. El-Amine denies this claim. He is planning to file a lawsuit in State Supreme Court this week charging Avon with both discriminating against him for his political activism and defaming him with accusations of public masturbation.
Seated in his attorneys' office last week, El-Amine looked like a typical graduate student. He wore a T-shirt, jeans, and a button proclaiming "End the Sanctions Now! Hands off Iraq." In fact, El-Amine has a master's degree in international affairs from Georgetown University, and was until recently pursuing a Ph.D. from the City University of New York. A longtime member of the International Socialist Organization, El-Amine sees his lawsuit against Avon as yet another political battle.
"I wanted to force them to at least say, 'We fired him for his political activity,' " says El-Amine. "And then this pops out of the box. It's an insidious charge because it's your word against someone else's word. And heck, anyone is a pervert. What shocked me immediately is that here we were accusing them of homophobia and so on, and then they use the classic homophobic slur oversexed man doing it in the bathroom."
Ottinger, who works at the law firm Dienst & Serrins, says that the masturbation charge first surfaced during a December phone conversation he had with Donna Edbril, Avon's senior assistant general counsel. Ottinger says Edbril told him that an Avon vice president had seen El-Amine masturbate. "The guy says he was standing at the urinal and . . . he looked over and Bilal masturbated all the way to fruition and then the person saw a puddle of semen below the urinal," Ottinger says.
Avon's attorney would not confirm or deny this explanation for El-Amine's dismissal. "I'm not at liberty to tell you why," Edbril says. "We told the agency that we no longer needed his services, which we have every right to do."
When asked about El-Amine's claim of discrimination, Edbril grows enraged. "It's simply ludicrous," she says. "Look at how many people in the creative agency are openly gay! There were people in that department . . . who are Avon employees [and] who were given time off to participate in that demonstration."
Edbril insists that Avon has a strong record on gay issues. "We have a gay and lesbian network [for employees] here," she says. "We just came out with a benefits package where domestic partners are [covered]. I mean, how can this possibly be a place that discriminates against someone for participation? . . . It's crazy. It's downright defamatory. I don't know what his motives are, [but] it's simply not true. It's very damaging to the company to have such publicity, and the company doesn't deserve it. . . . We will fight this tooth and nail."
El-Amine is not the first person to be fired for allegedly masturbating on the job. In 1995, the New York City Transit Authority terminated a subway train operator after a passenger spotted him masturbating while driving the train. "An employer is free to fire someone for that kind of behavior," says Randolph E. Wills, deputy commissioner for law enforcement at the city's Commission on Human Rights. "The general rule in New York State is that you can be fired for anything or nothing at all as long as it's not discriminatory."
When Sean Sweeney heard that El-Amine had been accused of masturbating at work, he was shocked. Sweeney, who heads the Queens College Worker Education Extension Center, was El-Amine's boss from 1994 to 1997 when El-Amine taught urban studies in Sweeney's program. About the masturbation charge, Sweeney says, "It's completely uncharacteristic. I'm sure a lot of people have done that before. [But] I can't imagine him doing it. . . . He's basically a good teacher and a good guy dedicated politically but not someone who is [in] any way strange or unpredictable."
For his part, El-Amine says he cannot figure out what led Avon to accuse him of public masturbation. Sometimes he wonders if this whole saga started with a puddle in the bathroom. "The only thing I could possibly connect it to was that [Avon's] urinals are automatic," he says. "They would always flush while I was standing in front of them. . . . The water would always splash down on me. Or, if I stepped aside, it would just splash down on the floor."
Research assistance: Hillary Chute