Peter Bryan Torres, 51, didn’t want his family to find out that he was HIV positive after nine years of living quietly with his diagnosis by taking his lawsuit public, but he couldn’t stay silent any longer after a supervisor at New York City’s Museum of Natural History spearheaded what he refers to in a recent lawsuit as a “campaign of harassment and severe discrimination” against him, which he alleges was conducted on the basis of his disability and his sexual orientation.
In the suit, Torres, who identifies as a gay male and is HIV positive, specifically identifies his direct supervisor, Juan Montes, as someone who, after learning about his sexual orientation and HIV-positive status, began to make “highly offensive and discriminatory comments against him,” including the fact that he worried Torres was “a danger to his family.”
Their relationship wasn’t always strained, Torres says, but things changed in May of 2016 when he collapsed in his home due to HIV-related issues and was rushed to the hospital. When Montes, who was hired in 2015 as the Museum’s Chief Information Officer about a year prior, contacted Torres about the incident, it was then that Torres disclosed his HIV status to him for the first time. By then, the Manager for Information Technology and Office of the Chief Information Officer had worked at the museum for nearly a decade.
In the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court, Southern Court of New York, it is asserted under the Statement of Facts that immediately after this incident, Montes demanded Human Resources at the museum disclose Torres’s entire medical history to him, and when they refused, he told Torres that he should have been given full disclosure of Torres’s medical history upon being offered the position as Chief Information Officer so that he could “decide whether he wanted to work with someone like him.”
“It was a surreal experience. It was like he had a totally different personality. There were days filled with silence where he wouldn’t even communicate with me,” he told The Advocate. “He would even go to lengths to make it look like we were talking in front of other people, but it was theatrical, along with exaggerated gestures like banging cabinets or slamming down reams of paper. When he walked by me, he would press himself as far up against the wall as possible, as if I had the plague.”
It has been public information for decades that you cannot contract HIV merely by being in the same room as someone or making contact with them, which prompts Torres and his legal team, led by Walker G. Harman, Jr., to wonder whether this was merely an excuse for his behavior or genuine ignorance about the ways that HIV can be contracted.
“I tried to explain to him that I wasn't a danger to him or his family, but he ran out of the room yelling, "I don't know that! I don't know anything about it!’” Torres said. “But the disease carries a stigma to this day. It provokes apathy and resentment, not sympathy. Montes even said to me, ‘You’re absolutely right, there is no compassion,’” Torres said.
Torres maintains that he was an exemplary employee who received several promotions and raises over the past decade for his work, and was granted a request for medical accommodation to allow him continue to perform the essential functions of his job—namely, that he be allowed to arrive at work late and leave early when his medical conditions necessitated — in 2012. It didn’t become “an issue,” he said, until Montes launched the alleged personal attacks.
Torres says he continued to show up to work despite what he felt was an ongoing personal attack because he felt he “needed to push through it.”
“I hoped that something would click in his head so he’d stop behaving that way. I put my trust in the human resources department but it just kept getting bigger and bigger, and anything he requested of human resources in regards to me was granted,” Torres said.
The final straw, says Torres, came shortly after he took a trip to Florida to visit the family of his cousin who was killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando last June.
“When I returned, he gave me a low performance rating, citing a trip he claimed I booked for him to Syracuse as part of the reason. He said he was supposed to fly to Rochester, but it was a total fabrication. I booked his travel arrangements correctly. He never flew to Syracuse ” Torres said. That’s when he reached out for legal aid from The Harman Firm, LLP, who provided the type of support that he says he initially requested from human resources at the museum and never received.
As for what he hopes comes from the decision to make his lawsuit public, Torres and his lawyer note that this is far from an isolated case: the firm has numerous open cases of people who have been discriminated against in their place of work because of an HIV-positive diagnosis.
“This happens all the time, so it’s important that the public see and understand the serious impact it has on peoples' lives,” said Edgar Rivera, who is working on the team with Torres and Harman.
He continued to say that he hopes that in sharing the details of the case, the public can be made more empathetic to a struggle that is still very much real when it comes to potential workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or any number of medical conditions.
“It’s so destructive, it haunts you on a level you can’t even recover from. I haven’t been able to leave my home and I’m sleeping most days, I feel so humiliated,” Torres said. “But this isn’t right. You can’t treat someone like this based on a disability or anything else. It’s not humane.”
The American Museum of Natural History said that due to their communications policy on pending litigation, they are unable to comment at this time.
Helaina Hovitz is an editor, journalist, and author of After 9/11. She has written for The New York Times, The Daily Meal, Tasting Table, Salon, Glamour, Newsweek, Thrillist, Teen Vogue, VICE, Reader’s Digest, Forbes, Women’s Health, and many others. Visit her on Twitter, or HelainaHovitz.com.