Too gay for the horseracing business
Damien worked in horse-racing in Ontario for twenty years, as a trainer, jockey and racing steward for the Ontario Jockey Commission. He was one of the top three racing judges in Ontario when on February 7, 1975, he was dismissed without notice after his gay sexual orientation came to the attention of the Commission, an independent agency of the Ontario provincial government.
Almost immediately a Toronto gay group began to campaign for his reinstatement, as well as an enquiry into his firing and into the status of gay people working in positions under Ontario government jurisdiction. The Committee to Defend John Damien was established soon after, and the Damien case gained attention across Canada.
For all of the publicity, though, and the support of civil libertarians, journalists, lawyers, doctors and politicians, court actions launched in 1975 dragged on for years without the case being brought to trial. Damien was ruined financially and supported himself through odd jobs.
Finally, in 1986, the first legal action, a suit of wrongful dismissal against the Commission, was settled in Damien’s favour; he was awarded one year’s wages plus interest, a total of about $50,000. By this time Damien was in poor health, and he died of pancreatic cancer.
A second lawsuit, for loss of income, had been filed against the estate of a racetrack doctor who had informed the Jockey Club that Damien was homosexual; the case had not yet been heard when Damien died, just 22 days before a legal change that would have made his long fight unnecessary – inclusion of “sexual orientation” in the Ontario Human Rights Code.
Damien proved that blatant discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation could no longer be tolerated in Canadian society and that court action in such cases would (eventually) succeed.
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