Ten years after graduating from Irvine's University High School, Broadway actor David Engel returned in triumph to his class reunion on Aug. 15.
Engel, who plays "Hanna From Hamburg" in the popular musical comedy, "La Cage Aux Folles," wanted his classmates to meet his lover and fellow actor, Eric Underwood.
"We had a wonderful response from all my friends," said Engel, referring to his classmates' reaction to Underwood, who also has a role in the long-running production of "La Cage" on Broadway.
"This is what's happened to me in 10 years, and I'm proud of it."
All was well until the photographer for the event told Engel that their photograph would not appear in the reunion's "memory book" because the company's owner refuses to publish pictures of same-sex couples, Engel said. The book resembles a small-scale school yearbook and features both group and individual photos taken at the reunion.
'I Felt Degraded'
On Monday, the 27-year-old actor filed suit in Orange County Superior Court against Worthington Reunion Photographers in Costa Mesa. Engel is seeking a court order to force the company's owner, Dan Worthington, to publish their photograph.
"I felt degraded. . . . I felt like I was not treated like everyone else," Engel said Monday.
"This is back-of-the-bus treatment--it's even worse than that," said Gloria Allred, a well-known Los Angeles civil rights attorney who is representing Engel. "This is a total denial of business services."
Engel's lawsuit contends that Worthington's refusal to publish the photograph violates the state's Unruh Civil Rights Act, which prohibits businesses from discriminating on the basis of race, color, sex or religion.
Allred said the main purpose of the suit is to force Worthington to publish the picture. A hearing on her request for a temporary restraining order is scheduled for today.
Worthington said Monday: "I didn't ever want to answer to anyone as to why these guys had their arms around each other. . . . If I'm making a publication with my name on it, I want it to represent my company and my opinion."
Worthington, whose firm serves about 125 high school reunions a year, said he has encountered many same-sex couples during his five years in the business. He said he tells his photographers to photograph the graduate alone, and later with his or her companion.
Then, Worthington said, he publishes only the graduate's photograph.
"No one has noticed, and no one has complained," Worthington said. "They just think, 'There's my picture; they must have forgotten my friend.' "
But Engel and Underwood, who wear matching gold-and-diamond wedding bands, said they are determined to fight Worthington's policy. A few days after the reunion, Engel said he called Worthington to complain and request that the joint picture be included in the memory book, which cost graduates an extra $6 above the $79 dinner-party fee.
"He (Worthington) said he doesn't approve of this life style," said Engel, who lives in a Manhattan condominium with Underwood. "I said he was hired to do a job, and he could be sued."
Meanwhile, some members of University High's 1977 reunion committee have filed court declarations supporting Engel.
Valerie Smith, co-chairwoman of the reunion committee, said she "frankly couldn't believe it" when she learned of Worthington's refusal.
"I completely support David and Eric's picture being printed in the memory book," Smith wrote.
Beverly Nelson, the other co-chairwoman, said in her declaration that "Mr. Engel, as my classmate, has the right to be included in the memory book with the person of his choice."
Worthington, who is about two weeks away from publishing the University High memory book, said he hasn't yet hired an attorney but plans to be in court today.