nicole gililland TitleIX lawsuit
Nicole Gililland in front of her RV in November 2019. Photo: Ricardo Nagaoka
Gender

'Be Careful Who You Treat Like Shit': A Former Porn Star Sues Her School

Nicole Gililland alleges that her college discriminated against her for working in porn. She's hoping to set a new legal precedent for sex workers.
25 February 2020, 9:50am

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Three weeks after Nicole Gililland attempted suicide, her therapist asked if she missed the light she saw that night. As much as she dislikes acknowledging the cliché, Gililland had just described standing a few feet from a cracked door through which shone a sliver of astonishingly bright light. She assured her therapist that she did not pine for it. She barely had time to reach for it before she woke up, lying across the backseat of her car and grateful to be alive.

On that night in June 2018, Gililland knew immediately that she needed medical attention. She sensed the drugs she’d hoped would kill her hours earlier were still in her system. The vacant lot surrounding her car appeared in disjointed fragments: the mist, the dirt road, the arm-like pine branches. Months earlier, Gililland, who is now 32, and her then-partner, Daymon, had hoped to buy this plot of land in Southwest Oregon and fix up the house that had sat there, abandoned, for a decade. Gililland was drawn to the cranes and osprey that gathered at the lake below the house; she loved how the crows and mist gave the property an eerie, cinematic feel.

Daymon had been searching for Gililland for hours before he thought to check the plot by the lake. She was throwing up outside her car when he found her. The lot was equidistant from two medical centers, but the choice was obvious: anywhere but the hospital on Coos Bay.

Gililland was a nursing student at a college associated with that hospital, Southwestern Oregon Community College (SWOCC). The college’s nursing program was one of the most respected institutions in Coos Bay, a town of 16,000 nestled along the rugged coastline of Oregon’s solidly conservative Coos County. Gililland was still enrolled that night, but it had been months since she began to suspect the teaching staff learned she'd been a porn actor a decade earlier, and she says it had been weeks since anyone acknowledged her in class. She was failing a key course and was certain her professors would continue to make it nearly impossible for her to pass the other two. It felt as though the entire school had turned against her.

What she didn't know then was that in the months to come, it would begin to feel like the whole town was doing the same.

By the time her therapist inquired about the light and whether she was sad to have left it, Gililland had hired a lawyer. After her suicide attempt, Gililland had simply wanted to return to school. She loved medicine—she completed EMT training after leaving the sex industry and had been working as a paramedic for years—and craved the financial stability that nursing would bring her family. But as SWOCC refused to let Gililland progress to the penultimate year of her program, and as the tight-knit Coos Bay community rallied around the college, she began to feel she had no choice but to sue.

Gililland’s lawyer, whose practice primarily involved settling cases, helped her find a civil rights attorney in Portland named Kevin Brague. With Brague, Gililland sued SWOCC under Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools and colleges that receive government funds.

The suit was filed in February of last year. It marks what is likely the first time a student has invoked Title IX to fight discrimination they faced due to their status as a sex worker. It’s a significant step to take, one that stands to protect other sex workers facing unequal treatment.

“Stigma tells sex workers that they’re not worth anything, and I want my lawsuit to be a wake-up call. This is what I want it to illuminate as if on a neon billboard: be careful who you treat like shit.”

“Stigma tells sex workers that they’re not worth anything, and I want my lawsuit to be a wake-up call,” Gililland said. “This is what I want it to illuminate as if on a neon billboard: be careful who you treat like shit.”

But Gililland’s story only got more complicated after she began the process of breaking new legal ground in an insular, conservative town. Taking on the local college sent her down a dark path, one in which she says her job, her home, her future career, and most alarmingly of all, her children—Danika, 6, and Piper, 3—were at risk.

Gililland says Melissa Sperry was the first professor to single her out. When Gililland was recovering from a debilitating kidney infection, Sperry gave her a lengthy assignment no one else received but refused to grade it three days later, saying that she never assigned it, the lawsuit alleges. (VICE reviewed email correspondence in which Sperry directs Gililland to the assignment’s instructions, and spoke with another student, who said the class had not received the same assignment. “Melissa gave Nicole a bogus assignment,” the student said. “Without a flipping doubt.”) Then, Sperry allegedly docked her grades for taking tests late—even though Gililland says Sperry had previously implied that she wouldn't be penalized due to the severity of her illness.

When Gililland asked about this change of heart, she recalls her professor said something odd and seemingly out of context: “Unclassy women shouldn’t be nurses, Nicole.” Sperry denied these allegations in a court document filed by her lawyer in May but did not respond to VICE’s request for comment; a classmate confirmed that Gililland had relayed the exchange to her after it happened.

The next week, Gililland says, Sperry took an assignment of Gililland's that a different teacher had graded, changed the passing grade to an “F,” and accused her of plagiarism. In a hearing to address this accusation, the school's dean, Francisco Saldivar, made it clear to Daymon and Gililland that she would not be expelled from the nursing program. As the couple got up to leave, they recall that the head of the program, Susan Walker, accused Gililland of being an angry person and claimed that she was “unsafe with her patients.” This made no sense to Gililland: She was making the dean’s list and the nurse overseeing her hospital placement said she was thriving. (Walker did not respond to VICE’s request for comment; she denied having made these statements in a court document her lawyer filed in May.)

From Gililland’s perspective, this moment confirmed what she had already suspected: Her professors didn’t fault her work—they took issue with the years she spent as a porn actor. As the semester progressed, Gililland claims other professors joined Sperry in manipulating her grades. She says they would ignore her in class, even when she raised her hand. Her classmates seemed mostly empathetic, but they avoided her on campus, apparently not wanting to anger their professors. “I told Nicole that I was so upset about what was happening to her, but that I could not speak to her at school,” a classmate said. “We had to separate from her in public for our own self-preservation.”

Over the course of these long days of forced isolation, it was becoming clear that Gililland’s professors would not grant her the C-average grades she needed to return for the final year of her program.

“Everyone has a breaking point,” Gililland said, “and that was mine.”

Gililland’s lawsuit alleges that she was subjected to harassment based on her sex, as a result of her work in porn. It cites Sperry’s alleged comment about nursing requiring a certain type of classy woman and Walker’s purported assertion that Gililland was an angry woman who was unsafe with patients. Sperry, Walker, and Saldivar are named as defendants in the lawsuit; all declined VICE’s requests for comment.

“It did not surprise me that Nicole faced discrimination because of her history in porn,” the classmate said. The instructors “decided that she was not right for the program and singled her out—the first step was the bogus assignment, then they landed on plagiarism. It was a total shit show. SWOCC’s nursing school has a reputation for having bullies.”

This student—whose name VICE withheld because she feared her reputation would be damaged if anyone in Coos Bay found out she'd defended a woman who had so swiftly fallen from the small town’s good graces—felt singled out too. She figures she faced discrimination because she was older than most of her classmates. She recalls an instructor claiming she looked stupid and scattered when asking questions and telling her she was no longer allowed to speak in class. “You won’t make a good nurse,” she said the instructor told her, “It’s all up to me.”

This student was nervous to speak with VICE. But she feels she owes Gililland a debt of gratitude, as she believes the discrimination Gililland faced took some of the instructor’s heat off her.

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Nicole Gililland and her daughters in November 2019. Photo: Ricardo Nagaoka

Victoria Kalmykova, a student who was a year ahead of Gililland, told VICE she thinks she was targeted by nursing program instructors because of her Eastern European accent. (When contacted by VICE, SWOCC’s lawyer said the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, prohibited the defendants from commenting on allegations made by Kalmykova and her peer.) Both students said they knew others who had been harassed, too. In this competitive program in a conservative, tight-knit Oregon county, there appeared to be narrow parameters for who could be a nurse, and who should be picked apart because she (it was almost always a “she”) didn’t fit the mold.

Although the harassment other women described mirrored Gililland’s in many ways—increased scrutiny, unfounded accusations, belittlement—they were able to graduate. Gililland pins this difference on the heightened stigma associated with sex work. “They thought I was such a weak, pathetic, disgusting target,” Gililland said. “It was easier for them to write me off. In their eyes, I had sold my soul.” In May, the defendants’ lawyer filed an official response to the lawsuit in which they categorically denied Gililland’s allegations.

Gililland’s lawsuit also claims that SWOCC engaged in a pattern of behavior destined to exclude female students, since most sex workers are women. There are very few comprehensive statistics regarding sex work in the U.S. but some numbers can provide insight: 70 percent of porn actors are women, according to one database, and a survey of sex workers in Nevada noted that all but one of Nevada’s brothel workers were women. Further, the FBI reported that women made up 66 percent of prostitution arrests in the U.S. in 2014.

Derek Demeri, a third-year law student and co-founder of New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, a sex worker advocacy organization, has written an article set to be published in Rutgers University Law Review this spring which asserts that discrimination against sex workers qualifies as sex discrimination under Title VII, a federal law that prohibits employment discrimination based on race, religion, sex, or nationality. Demeri’s article is the first legal document in the country to make this argument.

"Getting a court to recognize that discrimination against sex workers is sex discrimination could bring a sweeping movement across the country."

“It’s not just about Title IX—getting a court to recognize that discrimination against sex workers is sex discrimination could bring a sweeping movement across the country,” Demeri said of Gililland's lawsuit.

Days after the suicide attempt, Gililland's daughter Danika’s biological father filed for emergency custody. Within a week, the Oregon Department of Human Services questioned Nicole, and Piper was placed in the care of Gililland’s estranged family members—people whom she felt were manipulative and exploitative and with whom she felt sure Piper would be unsafe. (Gililland also suspected they'd told the school about her porn career. Months later, Gililland says, she overheard a conversation in which a family member confirmed this.)

When her daughters were taken, Gililland panicked. She wasn’t sure how DHS had found out about her suicide attempt, or why DHS administrators were claiming, falsely, that she had a drug and alcohol problem. But she started to wonder if SWOCC was trying to paint her in a bad light to avoid its own culpability in her case. "If [DHS could show] I was crazy, if I was a drug addict, if I was a liar, my suicide attempt wouldn't be on SWOCC’s doorstep," she said. Her fears were only heightened when, on a visit to the DHS to see Piper, she ran into SWOCC dean Saldivar, who, she said, was inexplicably there at the same time as her DHS social worker. That social worker had attended SWOCC and had a number of Facebook friends who worked at the school, Gililland discovered. (The social worker did not respond to VICE’s request for comment.)

Gililland’s lawsuit seemed to follow her wherever she went. Her boss at a restaurant in Coos Bay mentioned it when he fired her, saying she could return when her legal troubles were sorted out, she recalled. (The owner has not responded to VICE's request for comment.) Earlier, during a custody hearing, her actions against SWOCC were specifically highlighted—as they were again when Gililland took her landlord to court after being asked to move out after Daymon assaulted Gililland in the house, Gililland said. The landlord’s lawyer brought up Gililland's lawsuit against the school three times, insinuating that Gililland was stirring up trouble. (When reached by phone, the property manager, who is the landlord’s daughter, declined to comment. In the court hearing, the judge ultimately sided with the landlord because the landlord claimed Gililland was not on the lease; Daymon insists that the landlord told him Gililland could live there a few days before the assault took place.)

“At first I thought, how in the hell do you think you’ll get away with this?” Gililland said. “But now I see that they really could. We have one whore taking on all of these noble people.”

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Nicole Gililland holds her paramedic badge in November 2019. Photo: Ricardo Nagaoka

Her mind was a swirl of terrors. Were people in Coos County literally conspiring against the unwelcome sex worker in their midst? Even if the link between her legal battle with the school and her DHS custody case was less direct than she feared, Gililland knew that, in such a small town, the cases could not exist in isolation.

Gililland did everything she could to get her daughters back, including taking mandated classes to address substance use problems she did not have. She went to DHS-mandated parenting classes and therapy after the social worker suggested Gililland could be bipolar (she is not).

She submitted to a psych evaluation and acquired 12 letters of support from friends and acquaintances, which the forensic psychologist noted were "unequivocal in their accolades regarding Nicole’s character.” He confirmed what Gililland knew all along: She did not have a mental health or substance use condition and could be reunited with her girls. But that wouldn't happen for months.

Eventually a new DHS social worker identified Gililland’s family’s house as an unsafe place for Piper—having discovered that she was at times left in the care of an 11-year-old, and had bruises on her head and face. Piper was moved to a foster home and months later, in November 2018, mother and toddler were reunited. (Gililland’s family members did not respond to detailed requests for comment but they wrote in an email to a social worker that Piper obtained her injuries falling down stairs.) The following February, on what Gililland describes as one of the happiest days of her life, Danika was allowed to return too.

While Gililland was trying to re-create a normal life for her girls, an attorney representing DHS inexplicably sought to open another case against her, alleging that Gililland's assault was a result of mutual violence, writing that “Ms. Gililland was engaged in a domestically violent relationship with Mr. Gililland.” But no one had ever made this claim: Daymon pleaded guilty and never denied he was the perpetrator and the Coos County Sheriff's Office made it very clear in a press release that the violence was not mutual**.**

With a second custody case brewing and nowhere else to turn, Gililland told Brague, the attorney who filed her Title IX suit, about her increasingly fraught relationship with DHS, and said she was worried that her ongoing legal battle with SWOCC had influenced the people assigned to her custody case.

To her relief, Brague (who declined to comment on this conversation, citing attorney-client privilege) didn’t tell Gililland she was being paranoid. She recalls him saying something like, "No one works this hard to discredit someone unless there is an ulterior motive.” He noted that since Gililland was also suing the college for intentional infliction of emotional distress, any alleged connections between the school and her DHS case could be incorporated into the suit.

In a letter to the school dated shortly after their conversation, Brague wrote “SWOCC’s Board has dirty hands. It will be proven that they have purposefully attempted to discredit my client... and [have] made the decision early on to manipulate DHS/DOJ proceedings to avoid liability.” Brague subpoenaed thousands of pages of documents from DHS and he tried to subpoena security camera footage from the day Gililland says she saw Saldivar outside of the DHS building, but he was told that such footage does not exist. (The defendants’ lawyer wrote in an email to VICE that “no SWOCC employees were involved in Ms. Gililland’s DHS case.”)

After the second DHS case was dismissed, and Gililland and her daughters had weathered an unsettling stay in a homeless shelter that had a partnership with SWOCC, she learned she could rent a shed behind a house nearby for $200 a month. The owner was moving out the last of her Christmas decorations when Gililland arrived. The plywood shed had no windows and was just big enough to fit a full-sized air mattress for Gililland to share with her girls. They spent six weeks there. These were the weeks where, in another life, Gililland would have taken her final exams and graduated from nursing school.

She had no way of knowing this yet, but Gililland’s peers were the last students Walker and Sperry would teach at SWOCC. The school’s lawyer declined to comment on whether their departure was connected to the lawsuit.

Gililland unfollowed most of her classmates on social media because she knew it would hurt to see their graduation photos. But it was easier to watch that would-be milestone pass than she expected. A month earlier, she had connected with Alex Andrews, the co-founder of Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) Behind Bars. For the first time in a long time, Gililland felt heard. She found solace in speaking with other people who suffered not from sex work itself, but from the stigma associated with having done the work.

Demeri, of New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, predicts that Gililland’s case will be appealed if a jury rules in her favor. He points to Title VII cases, including three cases currently being heard by the Supreme Court, in which conservatives have argued that Congress did not have the particular category of people in mind—LGBTQ+ people in the SCOTUS cases—when creating statutes banning sex discrimination. He figures the same argument might be applied to sex workers, too. But when Congress enacted Title VII and Title IX, its aim was to end sex discrimination in employment and education settings. Expanding the legal understanding of sex discrimination will only help accomplish this goal, he said. Until explicitly protecting sex workers becomes a politically viable option for state and federal legislators, Demeri believes that sex workers should use Title VII and Title IX to argue that the discrimination they face is a form of sex discrimination. “The law’s already there. In my opinion, it’s just a matter of interpretation,” he said.

Gililland is far from the first sex worker to have their life derailed when seeking different career opportunities. In March 2012, a Houston Chronicle reporter was terminated because of her prior work as an exotic dancer; a month later a California teacher was fired because she had formerly been a porn actor; in 2018, a New Jersey Sheriff’s officer lost her job because she was previously a dominatrix. Two sex worker’s rights organizations, Best Practices Policy Project and the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, are in the midst of conducting a needs assessment for New Jersey sex workers and so far, they’ve found that over a quarter of sex workers in the state say they've been denied a job because of their involvement in the sex industry.

Still, Gililland’s case represents one of the few occasions in which a sex worker has sought legal protection from discrimination faced in a non-sex work employment or education setting.

“Gililland is using her privilege to achieve good for everyone else. There are a lot of people doing sex work who can’t be out about it because the consequences they would face are way too great.”

“Gililland is using her privilege to achieve good for everyone else,” Andrews said, “That is a remarkable thing to do. Sometimes all we have is our white privilege to exploit. There are a lot of people doing sex work who can’t be out about it because the consequences they would face are way too great.”

Andrews said she thinks that, as a result of Gililland's lawsuit, it's going to be more common for sex workers to fight back. "They may not even have to go to court, but people will will be on notice: You can no longer discriminate against people who have been involved in the sex industry," she said. "She’s fired a very powerful warning shot."

In July, after a story about Gililland appeared in Xbiz, a sex-industry news site, a Portland-based sex worker advocacy group set up a GoFundMe, which raised enough money for her to move out of the plywood shed and rent an RV. She parked her RV three hours away from Coos County, on a peaceful lot with mossy Adirondack chairs and dense clusters of 100-foot pines.

Her daughters loved their new home, but Piper still had separation anxiety. A year after being reunited with her mom, she screamed and cried every time Gililland shut a door or took out the trash. Danika was struggling in different ways. Before she was separated from Gililland, she was always kind and calm. Now, she had unexpected moments of aggression. “In my DHS-mandated parenting classes, I learned that the biggest trauma a child can suffer is being separated from their primary caregiver,” Gililland said. “So we’re all healing at our own pace.”

A little over a month after she settled into her RV, Gililland received a letter from the Oregon State Board of Nursing. It explained that an investigation of the school that she requested exactly one month before her suicide attempt had been completed. No formal disciplinary action would be taken, it said. The brief letter did not explain the board’s reasoning, and only Sperry was listed as the subject of the investigation, even though Gililland was under the impression that it had cast a wider net. The Nursing Board told VICE that it could not comment on the investigation because per Oregon law, investigatory information is confidential.

Gililland feels her lawsuit has the potential to provide a sense of closure the nursing board cannot. What haunts Gililland most is not that Sperry and Walker failed her—it’s that she believes SWOCC didn’t protect her from their discrimination. Gililland knows there will always be bigoted people in academia, but she also knows these people are powerless without the institutions that prop them up. In the wake of the destructive path her lawsuit carved through her life, Gililland is emboldened by the fact that her legal battle has grown to extend beyond Coos County and its nursing program—it has the potential to set a legal precedent that could one day help defend a camgirl studying physics in Arizona or an escort in New Jersey studying philosophy.

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Nicole Gililland in November 2019. Photo: Ricardo Nagaoka

The discrimination Gililland faced in Coos County "highlights how normalized it is to treat sex workers like garbage,” she said. She says nearly everyone who was supposed to teach or help or house her in the past two years has harmed her, and now she feels like she has nowhere to turn but the courts.

In mid-January, Gililland and her lawyer parted ways. She had not heard from Brague since November, when she told him she felt like he was no longer a good fit. Brague recommended that Gililland retain a lawyer he knew in Eugene—Brague is three hours away in Portland—and she is in the process of searching for an attorney whom she hopes will have more time to keep her up to date on her case.

In the meantime, she is keeping the lawsuit afloat on her own—a task that feels daunting yet familiar. “For so long, I’ve felt like I’ve been in an escape room looking for clues,” she said. “Only in an escape room, there’s a timer. At some point you get let out.”

Even her RV felt too close to Coos County as the past two years caught up to Gililland. While she does not have control over her lawsuit’s timeline, Gililland can choose where she sees it through. And for now, she picks Utah. She was born there and trusts the community she left behind.

"Hiding only made the stigma and the fear worse. It empowered people who shouldn't have had power over me."

As Gililland and her daughters crossed the Cascade mountain range in a friend's car stuffed with garbage bags of her family’s clothing, she felt hopeful—an emotion that had long been buried under a nearly unfathomable amount of fear. Gililland began sobbing the moment she crossed the Snake River into Idaho. For the first time in two years, breathing felt easy. They drove through the hilly farmland of southern Idaho and stopped at the Utah border so Danika and Piper could play in the snow. The girls were ecstatic and Gililland felt calm.

While she is ready to leave much of what haunted her in Oregon behind, Gililland will continue shouldering the burden of her legal struggle, hoping that her new community will embrace her wholly and without judgement. Will she tell them about Coos County and the lawsuit? About the porn? She has decided the answer to both questions will be yes. She anticipates that her new neighbors won’t look at her with disgust or crude curiosity when they learn she used to work in porn. And she hopes they will be impressed, not disparaging, when she tells them she’s finishing her degree online.

Gililland is pre-law now and she has her sights set on Yale. She misses medicine and is certain she would have made a fantastic nurse, but she can’t shake the feeling of powerlessness that permeated her time in Coos County.

She knows sex workers across the country are also questioned as parents and students and employees; that they’re underestimated, silenced, and sidelined every day. She hopes that, in a few years, she’ll be able to represent them and fight for them.

Gililland can’t imagine that many of the people she came across in Coos County will ever take this goal seriously, but she has a new home now. She has a 4.0 and is already studying for the LSAT. Sometimes Gililland envisions her old professors laughing or cringing or shaking their heads in disbelief when attempting to picture her as a lawyer, but she doesn’t mind. She’s already searching apartment listings in New Haven. And this time around, she will be upfront about her sex work. "Hiding only made the stigma and the fear worse,” she said. "It empowered people who shouldn't have had power over me." She hopes her lawsuit will make it easier for other sex workers do the same.