James: I am James Finley.
John: I am John Sternlicht.
James: We met in Richmond, Virginia. It didn’t take long to realize that there was something special between the two of us.
John: We just have so much fun doing the most ridiculous things together, with laundry, cooking, watching TV.
James: Being able to be married was incredible, and I actually felt complete.
John: I’ve never heard applause that loud at the end of a wedding. Everybody was so happy to see us happy.
James: Virginia is a beautiful place. We really liked being there. I coached for 8 years, and the 2012 fall season was our best. When the season was over, I was notified that the new athletic director wanted to have a meeting with me, and that was going to be the first meeting I’d had with the AD.
When I would speak to him in the hallway, he would walk by me and not answer me. And when I came into the office, he leaned forward and said, “We’ve decided to go in a new direction, we’re not renewing your contract.” So, I was in shock.
Right after the players were informed, they called me. The first thing they said was, “Coach, did they fire you because you were gay?” Even my players recognized what was going on. I was devastated.
We had built a life there, and the things that I had been so excited about got ripped out from under me by one person in a very short period of time.
John: It’s a terrible experience to have to go through. We ended up moving across the country, away from everybody we knew and loved. It really shows how vulnerable everybody is without legal protection.
James: We need things to change, so that people have recourse when somebody discriminates for any reason.
Imagine being fired from your job unexpectedly. A job that you excelled at. A job that you loved. James, a volleyball coach at a local Virginia university, doesn’t have to imagine this. Despite his performance, James was fired from his coaching job, simply because he was married to another man.
Everybody was so happy to see us happy.
John and James had never heard applause as loud as what they heard the day of their wedding. “Everybody was so happy to see us happy,” said John about their wedding day.
They were living in Richmond, Virginia at the time. James had been in his coaching position for several years and was well respected within the athletic department where he worked. But when a new athletic director (AD) was hired, things quickly changed.
James’s team had just returned from the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament. They had finished the season 25-6, their best winning percentage (.806) in James’s eight-year tenure as coach, and their first season in the A-10.
What should’ve been a day to celebrate the hard work and achievements of this volleyball team turned out to be one filled with shock and sadness. Because on that same day, James was fired by the new athletic director. This conversation, in which James was fired, was the first time he had even spoken with the new AD. James was told that his firing had nothing to do with his performance, but then a public statement released by the AD cited a need for “different leadership to attain our goals of achieving at an elite level nationally.” The statement made no sense given the team's amazing season. The truth is, he was fired because he’s gay1.
Coach, did they fire you because you’re gay?
James recounts the reactions from his students and other faculty members, as well. “‘Coach, did they fire you because you’re gay?’ they asked. Even my players recognized what was going on,” James said. “I was devastated.”
After his firing, James’s players were told that the university was seeking someone who would “represent the university well.”
James and John were forced to relocate from the state they loved—to start a new life in hopes of avoiding the injustice they faced in a state that failed to protect their basic rights.
Since Virginia is one of 31 states that doesn’t protect its LGBT2 residents from discrimination, it was legal for James to be fired simply because of who he is. Like James, millions of Americans are denied housing, employment, and services because of who they are.
Virginia has passed 5 laws that actively harm LGBT people.Learn more
Can be fired or denied a promotion
Can be evicted from their homes or denied housing
Can be denied service at public establishments, denied medical treatment, or even kicked out of restaurants or businesses
Virginia’s total population
Total LGBT population
Of LGBT population raising children