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Rene Portland Targeted With Legal Complaint

Penn State women's basketball coach accused of discrimination against lesbians

31 Mar 2000: Rene Portland of the Penn State Lady Lions yells from the sidelines during the NCAA Women''s Finals Four Game against the Connecticut Huskies at the First Union Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Huskies defeated the Lady Lions 89
31 Mar 2000: Rene Portland of the Penn State Lady Lions yells from the sidelines during the NCAA Women''s Finals Four Game against the Connecticut Huskies at the First Union Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Huskies defeated the Lady Lions 89
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Story from Nov. 3, 2005

An anti-discrimination complaint was filed Thursday against Penn State women's basketball coach Rene Portland and university officials by a former player who said she was harassed after being perceived as a lesbian.

Jennifer Harris, now enrolled at James Madison University, alleges in the complaint that Portland "repeatedly inquired about Harris's sexual orientation, pressured Harris to change her appearance to be more ‘feminine,' harassed and targeted Harris and other black athletes, and eventually told other players not to associate with Harris. In 2005, Coach Portland abruptly told Harris to find somewhere else to play."

The complaint, filed on Harris' behalf by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, names Portland, Athletic Director Tim Curley, and Penn State as defendants. "It alleges that they violated the Pennsylvania Fair Educational Opportunities Act by subjecting Harris to ongoing acts of harassment and discrimination beginning in late 2003 and continuing until she finally received her release from Penn State in June 2005 and beyond," the NCLR said in a statement. "Shortly after Harris sent a letter to Penn State indicating that she intended to take legal action, Portland retaliated by issuing a false and defamatory statement attacking Harris's academic and athletic performance at Penn State."

Portland denied the accusation, and the university has said it will investigate them. Harris says she is not a lesbian. "My departure from Penn State was very painful," Harris said in October. "I struggled with whether I should just walk away and try to forget what happened. I finally realized that I could never put this incident behind me as long as other students were being subjected to the same sort of humiliation and discrimination I experienced from Coach Portland. In the end, I knew I had to speak out."

In October, the NCLR sent a letter to University President Graham Spanier, demanding that action be taken against Portland for her "decades-long policy of harassing players whom Coach Portland believed to be lesbians." The complaint says that "despite Harris' outstanding performance as a player during her two-year career at Penn State from 2003 to 2005, Coach Portland repeatedly questioned Harris about her sexual orientation, repeatedly threatened to kick Harris off the team if she found out Harris was a lesbian, and eventually told other players not to associate with Harris because she believed that Harris was gay. In 2005, Coach Portland abruptly told Harris to find somewhere else to play."

In response to the NCLR letter, Portland said that Harris had a poor attitude and work ethic and did not meet team performance standards on or off the court. "She engaged in disrespectful, profane and belligerent behavior toward coaches and teammates, and she exhibited a work ethic and attitude that were unsatisfactory and detrimental to the success of our team," Portland said. This upset NCLR, which said the comments were retaliatory and inaccurate.

"We are encouraged that Penn State has distanced itself from Coach Portland's defamatory statement and has committed to conducting a full and fair investigation into Ms. Harris's claims; however, we are proceeding cautiously," said NCLR Regional Counsel Karen Doering. "We have filed a discrimination complaint with the State and are prepared to file suit in federal court if necessary to ensure that what happened to Jennifer Harris does not happen to any other students."

Portland, 52, has been a controversial figure since saying in 1986 that she does not want lesbians on her team. She was honored Thursday for her support of a scholarship fund at Penn State, but gay and lesbian students were set to hand out pamphlets to attendees highlighting what they see as her anti-gay views, the Centre Daily Times reported.