Player Says Race Was Also Factor in Her Departure

Nov 18, 2005

A former women’s basketball player at Penn State University has filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, alleging that not only was she discriminated against because of her perceived sexual orientation, but also because of her race.
Jennifer Harris had become something of a cause celebre this fall, primarily because of the support she has received from The National Center for Lesbian Rights. The NCLR even broke the story of her forced departure from PSU to James Madison University when it issued a press release on October 11 entitled “NCLR Asks Penn State to Stop Decades of Anti-Gay Harassment by Women’s Basketball Coach Rene Portland.”
In the release, Harris was quoted as saying:
“Because Coach Portland thought that I was gay, I was treated in a very demeaning manner. Coach Portland created an offensive, hostile and intimidating learning environment for players she believed were gay. She created divisiveness on the team by instructing players not to associate with other players she believed to be gay, or they would be kicked off the team also.”
In her complaint, however, Harris identified a “pattern of ongoing harassment” that started in early 2004. Specifically, she claimed that other black players were forced off the team or harassed “more harshly than other players because of their race and what coach Portland perceived to be their nonconformity to out-of-date gender stereotypes.”
Harris, who has named the university, Portland and athletic director Tim Curley as defendants, is being represented by the NCLR as well as Sharon F. McKee of Hangley Aronchick Segal & Pudlin.
In her only public statement on the issue, Portland denied the allegations. “First and foremost, let me make absolutely clear that the only reason Jennifer Harris is no longer with the Lady Lions is because of her performance and attitude in relation to basketball.”
Either way, the NCLR seems determined to see it through. “We’re fully prepared to go into federal court and litigate this,” said NCLR Regional Counsel Karen Doering. “Jen was really hurt by this entire experience and really incredulous that this all happened because none of it had anything to do with her ability to play basketball. There was a lot of pain, but she’s a very strong woman. She knows the potential harm this could do to her career, but she’s willing to take a stand because she knows that, if she doesn’t, Rene will remain unabated in her decades-long stance against lesbians.”


Articles in Current Issue