Last June 8, Nicole Gililland was in her car behind an abandoned house in Lakeside, Ore., waiting to die.

She’d taken 27 Ambien and, for good measure, shot up three bags of what she thought was heroin. Her years of work as a paramedic had taken her to more than a few overdose scenes, and she figured it seemed as good a way to go as any.

“I understand now,” she says, “what a person is thinking in that moment, and they’re thinking they’re doing their loved ones a favor.”

Thirteen hours after taking the drugs, she woke up, sick as a dog. The heroin turned out to have been cut with meth—so it didn’t kill her.

The 31-year-old mother of two had been doing well as a nursing student at Southwestern Oregon Community College in Coos Bay. She was making the dean’s list and was about a year away from graduating.

That all began to fall apart early last year, when Gililland claims the college decided to run her out of school after it found out she used to perform in porn.

This February, she filed a federal lawsuit against the school and some of its personnel, charging them with breach of contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and subjecting her to a hostile educational environment.

Experts say this lawsuit, in a remote corner of Oregon, could be the first time a plaintiff has used Title IX to make an accusation of discrimination based on a person’s status as a current or former sex worker.

A woman doesn’t have to have worked in the sex industry to know how her own sexuality can be weaponized against her. Her future can be threatened by as little as a leaked topless selfie. If being fired for that is a form of gender discrimination, what about harassment based on having done sex work? Gililland’s suit will test whether the law—especially Title IX—protects sex workers from discrimination.

Neither SWOCC nor its attorney would comment on this story, citing ongoing litigation.

Coos Bay, Ore. (Sheila Sund)
Coos Bay, Ore. (Sheila Sund)

Southwestern Oregon Community College is one of the largest employers in Coos County, a rural stretch of the Oregon Coast 200 miles south of Portland, where the logging industry once provided jobs.
The area's conservative reputation was reinforced in 2018 by the way the community rallied around a public high school principal after the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against him for discriminating against LGBT students and making students read the Bible as punishment.

The evidence Gililland has that her instructors treated her differently because they had learned of her past work is based on subtle comments by them and her accounting of the timeline. (She and her ex-husband say the school was tipped off by a vindictive family member.) None of them said anything overt to her about her former job.

Gililland, who moved to Coos Bay from Utah in 2016, says the harassment of her started when assignments from her nursing instructor Melissa Sperry never showed up in her online homework account. Assignments didn't show up at all, or showed up and then disappeared. Gililland thought at first this might be a computer glitch, but she began to think differently after Sperry accused her of plagiarism on class assignments.

Gililland claims that before her grades started falling, Sperry "made this weird comment about what kind of a classy woman it takes to be a nurse, and that unclassy women shouldn't be nurses."

It was then that Gililland, who was born in Utah and grew up in Oregon and Montana, thought the issue might have been her career as a mainstream porn performer between the ages of 19 and 21. After she left the industry, she moved to Utah for a fresh start and became a paramedic.

She returned to Oregon in 2016, hoping to become a nurse. But the problems with Sperry threatened to derail her degree. When she went to nursing program director Susan Walker to show her how Sperry had changed the terms of her assignments after the fact, she claims she didn't get much help. Shortly thereafter, Walker accused Gililland of being unsafe in clinical settings. Complaints to top school administrators went nowhere.

In June, she and her husband, Daymon, whom she had married when she was 27, had a blowout fight and separated. That was the day she began planning to take her own life.

When she woke up in the hospital, she started panicking about upcoming final exams. Three days later, Gililland dragged herself into class, and scored 89 percent on her last test.

It didn't stop her from flunking out of school; she says that once again, Sperry manipulated her grades. She was out.

She hired an attorney, Steve Baldwin, who filed a tort claim against the college at the end of July.

Gililland knew that filing a lawsuit alleging discrimination based on her previous work in the porn industry would definitely out her in the community of Coos Bay.
"I don't regret what I did. I don't regret any of it, and I don't think I should have to," she says. "And so I think it's good to bring attention to this because I think your life shouldn't be over because you were a sex worker."

Her current attorney, Kevin Brague, has litigated numerous Title IX cases in Oregon. While he hasn't come across any others that have included an allegation that the discrimination was based on a woman's previous work in the sex industry, he says that's clearly what happened in Gililland's case.

"What we're alleging is, once the college found out about my client's prior work, that they then began orchestrating her departure from the college," Brague says. "And that's a violation of school policy, and because it's based on my client's status as a former worker in the sex or porn industry, that gives rise to implicating Title IX. It's [discrimination] based off of her gender and her sex as a former worker in that industry."

There have been other instances of women filing discrimination complaints related to past or current work in the sex industry. After a story in the Houston Press got journalist Sarah Tressler—who was also working as a stripper—fired from her job at the Houston Chronicle, she filed a complaint against the paper with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"Most exotic dancers are female, and therefore, to terminate an employee because they had previously been an exotic dancer would have an adverse impact on women since it is a female-dominated occupation," her attorney Gloria Allred said in a statement at the time. Tressler settled with her former employer and took a job at another paper owned by the same company.

Brague sees Gililland's case as comparable to those of outed strippers. "It's a new twist on the classic story of the young woman working in the strip club to make money for school," he says, "but generally those two worlds don't collide. In this case, the school took the affirmative step of making the moral decision about my client and then deciding that she wouldn't be fit for the [nursing] profession and then exited her from the program."

Brague won't discuss what types of evidence they'll be presenting but says it's clear she was targeted. Gilliland says she believes her case will be supported by deposing school officials and board members.

Gililland struggled after leaving the school. Her suicide attempt resulted in the Oregon Department of Human Services temporarily placing her children in the care of estranged relatives, and she was evicted from her rental last month. She's since been reunited with her children and started taking classes elsewhere.

In mid-April, seemingly out of nowhere, SWOCC sent Gililland the three associate's degrees she had completed at the school—in general studies, arts, and applied science. Gililland says she's leaving the health professions to pursue a degree in political science.

Her new plan, she says, is to go to law school.