Ninoska Garcia-Ortiz never thought her sexual orientation would limit her career choices. But she believes she failed out of her second year of nursing studies at Heritage College because her teacher discovered she is a lesbian.
Garcia-Ortiz is stuck in a battle that has derailed her education and threatens to halt her professional future before it even begins.
Until last December, Garcia-Ortiz, 31, was registered in the practical nursing program at Heritage College in Gatineau. Her marks were good and she had every intention of finishing the program.
However, she claims she failed a course in the fall after nursing professor Tassy Kingsley discovered she was a lesbian. Garcia-Ortiz has correspondence allegedly sent by Kingsley suggesting a lesbian can’t be a nurse because she wouldn’t be able to inspire the trust of her patients. The same email suggests Garcia-Ortiz explore other career options “which do not involve physical interaction and intimacy.”
Kingsley declined to comment. When approached by Capital Xtra, Kingsley would only say, “I cannot talk with the media.”
The academic dean at Heritage College, Jo Anne Werner, also declined comment on the case but said that in general, homophobic teachers would be disciplined.
“Hypothetically, and I’m not discussing the case, if a teacher behaved in this manner, they would be fired,” says Werner.
An investigation undertaken on behalf of Heritage College found no wrongdoing.
“Neither the College nor its nursing department had exhibited behaviours that could in any way have been construed as harassment, discrimination or homophobia,” says a report obtained by the Ottawa Citizen.
However, shortly after receiving anti-gay emails, Garcia-Ortiz received a failing grade in Kingsley’s class. When she filed complaints against Heritage’s nursing department, the college decided to conduct an internal investigation by a third party.
“I didn’t ask for an investigation. The school decided on it. I sent a letter to the Ministry of Education. The ministry contacted the school and asked them what was going on. That’s when the dean, Jo Anne Werner, contacted me,” says Garcia-Ortiz.
Garcia-Ortiz says she met with Werner and two other senior college officials, Louise Brunet, director general, and Rita Arena, director of student services.
“At this meeting, I told them what it had been like for me, and how my dismissal had nothing to do with grades and performance. At the end of the meeting, they told me the best way for the college to proceed was for them to conduct an internal investigation by an outside source,” she says.
Heritage College began looking into the case, but it’s not the only investigation.
Since then, Kingsley has filed a police complaint against Garcia-Ortiz.
Constable Cummings of the Ottawa Police, who refused to give his first name, was the officer who responded to Kingsley’s call.
After speaking with Kingsley, he phoned Garcia-Ortiz to let her know he spoke to Kingsley about the matter.
“In this case, there was nothing criminal being done. I was just following up a complaint,” says Cummings.
Meanwhile, Heritage College’s investigation dragged on. Six weeks after it began, the college asked Garcia-Ortiz to turn over her personal computer as evidence.
Garcia-Ortiz initially agreed to hand over her computer, provided she was given the request in writing, but later changed her mind, because she feels the investigation is biased.
“Because of how the request was worded, I knew there was no way in hell I’d turn over my computer. It gave them power to search everything and use anything against me. I told them if they wanted to check the validity of my emails, they should check with the server. My entire life is in that computer. I didn’t hand it over because I didn’t want my private, intimate life twisted,” says Garcia-Ortiz.
To this day, Garcia-Ortiz says she doesn’t know how Kingsley discovered she is a lesbian. Although she isn’t ashamed of her sexuality, she says she never revealed it to anyone other than a few people in her program and a professor from her first year.
But last fall, the relationship between Kingsley and Garcia-Ortiz went sour, she says. She says every time she would ask a question in class, Kingsley would reply “why are you asking this?” or “why would you ask a stupid question like that?”
“[Kingsley] directed no respect towards me in the classroom setting,” says Garcia-Ortiz.
Shortly after that, Garcia-Ortiz asked Student Services to intervene with her conversations between her and Kingsley. She says she didn’t feel comfortable talking with Kingsley in private.
“I got fed up with being disrespected. I told Kingsley that the only time I would speak with her would be through a third party,” says Garcia-Ortiz.
Garcia-Ortiz recalls having only two conversations with Kingsley where her sexual orientation was discussed.
Garcia-Ortiz was having difficulties submitting her assignment to Kingsley by email, so she posted it on her MySpace page and emailed the link. Six days later, an email arrived, allegedly from Kingsley, saying the content of Garcia-Ortiz’s website was offensive. That was followed by a meeting between Garcia-Ortiz, Kingsley and Rita Arena from student services.
“Having Student Services involved was like having no one involved. Things between [Kingsley] and me got more and more out of control. In the last meeting, I kept asking [Kingsley] what she found offensive about my website. She refused to answer. Finally, she said I had my sexual orientation listed. The director of Student Services [Arena] was sitting right there and she wasn’t intervening. She wasn’t saying anything or doing anything. She just let it go. That’s when the meeting was over for me,” says Garcia-Ortiz.
The second time that Garcia-Ortiz and Kingsley discussed her sexual orientation was in Kingsley’s office.
“We were discussing shifts and I told her I prefer to work nights. [Kingsley] said nights would be best for me because I was a lesbian and I wasn’t going to be having a family or children, and that day shifts should be for families. She wanted me to say something. I didn’t,” says Garcia-AOrtiz.
Garcia-Ortiz thought an apology would make things stop. In her email apology to Kingsley, Garcia-Ortiz, a Christian, made reference to reflection and prayers.
Kingsley allegedly emailed her back, saying:
“Ninoska, I find it hypocritical that you refer to praying. It is offensive. There is no religion that I know of that accepts certain lifestyles and conduct. You wanted me to be honest. I am. You continue to be rude and disrespectful and that has to change. Tassy”
Garcia-Ortiz didn’t respond. About two and a half hours later, Kingsley allegedly sent another email, clarifying what she had said, with sentences like:
* “As a nurse, I have to advocate for my patients, and I feel that female patients will be uncomfortable having a lesbian nurse caring for them.”
* “I myself am not homophobic at all, but I would not want a lesbian nurse caring for me when I am vulnerable. I just would not feel comfortable with that.”
* “It would look better if you left nursing out of your own accord, rather than get kicked out.”
That was the last email correspondence between Kingsley and Garcia-Ortiz.
“I truly believe [Kingsley] didn’t think she was saying or doing anything wrong. I believe she thought this was an honest assessment.”
Last month, Garcia-Ortiz was in the hospital when one of the emails between her and Kingsley was posted online at reddit.com.
She doesn’t know who did it, but when she got home her email inbox was full of support emails and people wanting to know her side of the story.
As well, emails were sent to Heritage College and Kingsley.
Twenty-two-year-old Justin Goddard, a third year psychology student at Queens University, was one of the people to respond.
“I was really surprised both email addresses were available in the document. I emailed (Werner) and Ninoska. The college acknowledged an investigation is under way,” says Goddard. “Initially, I was outraged but I didn’t want to be too quick to respond. I see these things on the internet all the time. If this turns out to be a case that [Kingsley] said what Ninoska said she did, I wouldn’t want to be in [Kingsley’s] class or be in a college that allows something to go on like that.”
Shortly after Garcia-Ortiz spoke with Goddard, the posting was removed.
Arena sent Garcia-Ortiz a cease and desist order to stop contacting people working in the college’s nursing department.
The order also asks Garcia-Ortiz to “stop spreading any information that is false, defamatory or that could cause prejudice to anyone at the college. Failure to do so will result in further action taken by the college.”
She was also asked to provide medical documentation for not meeting with the investigator the week before and to bring him her computer the next day.
“Originally, I was scared when I got the letter. But I consulted with a lawyer and she said the school had no right to ask for my computer or a medical certificate with a diagnosis. I don’t want to give them anything that can be twisted around and used to discredit me.”
Before the investigation absolved both Heritage College and Kingsley of any wrongdoing, Garcia-Ortiz was already sceptical of the process.
“Do I think their investigation is going to prove anything positive for me? No. I’m demonstrating the steps I took to resolve it at a school level, and that’s it,” says Garcia-Ortiz.