A 56-year-old married man who was repeatedly taunted at work about being gay because he lives in Brighton has won his case at the Court of Appeal.
An employment tribunal and an appeal tribunal had both rejected his claims of discrimination.
Stephen English suffered years of abuse and insinuation from colleagues at Thomas Sanderson Blinds, based near Portsmouth, where he had worked in sales.
In his judgement, Lord Justice Sedley said:
“You cannot legislate against prejudice. You can set out in specified circumstances to stop people’s lives being made a misery of it.
“The incessant mockery – banter trivialises it – created a degrading and hostile environment and it did so on grounds of sexual orientation.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission supported his case and said his victory was “a landmark decision.”
The Court of Appeal said that protection should be extended to victims of homophobic abuse at work, even when the perpetrators are aware that the victim is not gay, but the abuse is motivated by homophobia and associated stereotypes.
His ordeal started when a colleague discovered he had been at boarding school and lives in Brighton, a city with a large gay population.
Mr English told the tribunal that he “regularly had to endure remarks such as ‘faggot’ at national sales meetings, team meetings at my home and regional managers’ meetings.
“These comments caused considerable distress both to myself and to my family, who were at home on occasions when I held team meetings and overheard comments referring to my perceived sexual orientation.”
Mr English brought a claim against them for harassment on grounds of sexual orientation under regulation 5 of the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003.
An employment tribunal originally dismissed his case on the grounds that Mr English was not covered by regulation 5, which only applies to harassment based on actual or perceived sexuality.
The appeal tribunal referred the case to the Court of Appeal, in order to clarify if EU laws protecting people from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in employment apply to a heterosexual man being subjected to homophobic abuse.
The ECHR said the court ruling means protection for others who are subjected to harassment because they have what some people see as stereotypical qualities of members of a group currently protected under existing anti discrimination legislation.
John Wadham, Group Legal Director of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said:
“Bullying is unacceptable, whatever your background – gay, straight, black or white.
“The fact that Stephen English’s colleagues knew he wasn’t gay, does not excuse their behaviour nor should it prevent him from enjoying the same rights to dignity and respect at work – the harassment he suffered was distressing.
“Until now, victims of this type of abuse had little or no legal protection. By supporting Mr English’s case, the Commission has helped to clarify the law to protect those who suffer harassment based on old-fashioned stereotypes.”