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August 2001
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Skinny Discrimination
by Robert Chao

I recently filed a lawsuit against my former high school, Piedmont High (near Oakland), for discrimination due to my body type. My main argument is that I was denied a place on the school football team because I was underweight.

I began my litigation journey a year ago, when I read in the San Francisco Chronicle of a young woman who filed a suit against the San Francisco Ballet for body type discrimination. She claimed that the ballet's refusal to hire her was a violation of her individual rights. At first, I was a skeptical of this lawsuit and even publicly ridiculed it, but I realized it had credibility because she gained the support of the ACLU and other legal groups. I was skeptical of my own chances of success but I contacted the local ACLU branch and they courteously asked me to visit the office.

I met with an ACLU lawyer to go over the facts of my case. The interview was a reversal of the usual situation: a person who wants a lawyer usually has to convince the lawyer that he has a legitimate case, but here he was trying to convince me. I stated that my case might have a problem because, for starters, I had graduated from the high school way back in 1992. He reassured me that my complaint was "continuing" since institutionalized discrimination can exist for years or even decades, and if I was treated unfairly, certainly it has happened to others.

I then raised the point that I had never actually tried out for the football team or had even asked when and where to try out. He again reassured me, saying that the school was at fault for not having an outreach mechanism to encourage different types of students to try out. Hence the team's failure to communicate was a type of clannish insularity. I was taken aback. Though I have never studied law, I felt his words almost clashed against common sense.

My final point was that if I had been allowed onto the football team, I would have performed poorly; at the time, I was tall, skinny and weak and have never excelled at sports. He said this was immaterial speculation; it would have constituted prejudice, since, as the word implies, they would have been judging me previous to actually playing a game. He added that furthermore, I could have been employed as a kicker. He took the time to explain this, because I am unfamiliar with the rules of football.

The lawyer introduced me to a young woman in the waiting area who had also gone to Piedmont High. She was filing a suit against the school because she had not received an invitation to the senior prom dance in 1996. At first I thought this was a joke, but the lawyer explained to me that her case was defensible because the school should have been responsible for the emotional well-being of its students. Hence, the prom should have included every student or none at all, especially when the school is in fact a public institution.

After a series of follow-up calls and meetings with the ACLU, I visited my old high school and thought things over. The lawyer had said that I could win hundreds or even thousands of dollars from the school. I had liked my school, and I still fondly remember studying Chaucer, watching the bird calling contest every year, and sitting in the beautiful library with the big windows. I sat in the empty amphitheater for an hour, considering the moral problems of my case. I decided to pursue it fully. I worked hard in college and then as a computer operator for six years. I'm not a bad person in, and if there was immorality in my lawsuit, it lies in the lawyers and the ACLU -- if I win, it's not my fault. Why should I work hard for years and years for people who treat me badly? Doesn't that benefit the bad people who employ me? Wouldn't my reward in fact free me from contributing to the socioeconomic system which has caused me so much desolation and pain? I could also donate most of the money to charities.

My case is still pending.

Robert Chao
Piedmont High, Class of '92
Oakland, July 31, 2001


This page was last updated August 6, 2001.

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