To Hell and Back

A travel agency employee in America's gay vacation mecca complains of homophobia

When Andy Lant was hired at Certified Vacations Groups Inc., a leading seller of packaged getaways for Disney and airlines such as Continental and Delta, he was given the title of information systems manager.

But Lant says his direct supervisor, Sam Menist, preferred to think of him in other terms. "He would call me 'bitch,' 'faggot,' 'homo' all the time," says Lant, whose story is confirmed by five coworkers. "He referred to my boyfriend as a suction cup. It was constant name-calling, a total hell."

Sunlight pours through the bay windows of Lant's waterfront condominium as he shuffles through a pile of papers, detailed notes, and other documentation that he kept while working two years for the Fort Lauderdale business. After a successful stint as a computer specialist with Johnson & Johnson, he joined Certified Vacations in 1998. Lant was responsible for the company's 700 personal computers, its Internet site, and other computer-related matters. He was paid $54,000 a year.

A Hungarian who relocated to South Florida in 1993, Lant says he at first considered Certified Vacations, located on Broward Boulevard, a stable place to work. The job offered him a chance to manage a major computer network and, in small part, to help attract vacationers to the area. But ten days after the September 11 attacks, Lant -- along with about half of the company's 500-plus employees -- was laid off.

Lant has hired an attorney and complained to the Florida Commission on Human Rights as well as the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. His attorney, Marjorie Shoureas, says she will file suit against both Certified Vacations and Menist for workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. Shoureas says she is unaware of any other Certified Vacation employees who were treated similarly.

Lant is undecided about whether to seek monetary compensation. "I just want to prove that what happened to me was wrong, and I want Sam [Menist] and the company to admit that publicly," he says.

Menist, who continues to hold the same position, did not return e-mails or two phone calls to his office. Vicki Carmichael, Certified Vacations' Human Resources vice president, told New Times the company's policy is not to comment about employee-related matters.

As proof that he was harassed, Lant offers four written statements signed by Certified Vacations employees confirming that Menist "verbally abused" him "numerous times" and that Menist called Lant's partner "a suction device." A fifth former employee also claims to have heard Menist curse at Lant and degrade him in front of other workers. New Times was able to reach four of the five employees -- they agree Menist called Lant derogatory names such as "bitch" and "fag."

"We complained to Human Resources frequently, but nothing changed," says a woman still employed in the Information Systems Department who declined to give her name.

"Sam was very loud about what he considered Andy," she says. "I heard Sam call [Andy] a bitch many times. That was just Sam's way; using the f word at full volume was just funny to him. I went in to talk to [Sam] one time about it, and he just laughed."

A network engineer who was also laid off last September says she was called in to the Human Resources Office twice to comment on mounting complaints against Menist. She too declined to be named because she uses Menist as a reference in her ongoing job search. "He verbally abused Andy in a highly inappropriate way," she recalls. "He would cuss at all of us. It was just a threatening environment to work in. It was hard on everyone but especially for Andy, who had to work so close to Sam."

Lant says he was hired shortly before Menist, who joined the company in late 1999. "I was told that I would be getting a supervisor," he says. "And when [Menist] walked in, no one could believe it, because he had his shirt[tail] all out, wrinkled, very unprofessional."

Menist and Lant's working relationship became prickly less than a month later. "I had been working Monday through Friday, and then late one Friday, the server crashed," recalls Lant. "I stayed there all weekend working on it. I thought finally by about 3 a.m. on Monday that I'd gotten it working again. I was so exhausted, I went home and left a message for Sam that I wouldn't be in."

But the server crashed again when Lant left.

"I wasn't even in bed before Sam was calling me saying, 'Get your bitch ass in here and fix this, you fucking faggot!'" he recalls. "I was delirious, I was so tired, but I didn't want to get fired, so I did what he wanted."

Lant complained to Human Resources about Menist's use of the word faggot, but -- to his knowledge -- the company took no action. Even after Menist allegedly introduced Lant to coworker Frank Bell as "our fag Andy," the company did not act. Although Bell declined to talk to New Times about the alleged derogatory introduction, a former Certified Vacations information systems land support specialist, who was laid off this past September, says he overheard the exchange. The support tech also didn't want his name printed, fearing that a family member still employed by the company would be retaliated against.

The specialist, who was employed for two years with the tourism company, describes Menist's treatment of Lant as "constant harassment." He complained both verbally and in writing to Carmichael in Human Resources and also brought up the matter with Menist.

"Absolutely nothing was done," he says. "I complained and several others did about Sam frequently calling Andy those names, and it was like no one heard us."

Over time, Lant says the harassment worsened. He claims he was asked to do impossible projects such as organizing financial records the company did not have. "I was written up for not doing it," he says, exasperated. "I just felt at the time they were looking for an excuse to punish me."

Lant and three employees also say that Menist would frequently pass gas or burp loudly around the office. "None of this was funny," says the network engineer, who still uses Menist as a reference. "It was just the most stressful, disgusting work environment I've ever experienced. Andy took the worst of it, though. I saw him leave with nosebleeds."

According to notes from his Miami doctor, Lant was treated November 7, 2000, and January 4, 2001, for "excessive nosebleed" and "stress-related anxiety."

After his November 7 doctor's visit, Lant says he told Carmichael in Human Resources that Menist's harassment was affecting him physically. He hoped that might spur the company to sanction Menist. Instead, Lant was told to see a therapist as part of the company's employee assistance program. During six sessions between mid-December 2000 and early January 2001, Lant told Dr. Kate Predoville that he had been repeatedly called derogatory names related to his sexual preference.

"I felt ridiculous talking to this doctor about what was going on at work," he says. "I wanted something to change. I didn't feel like I was the problem. I want some answers, a reply from this company that stood by and let this abuse go on."

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