QUEER VOICES

Boss Who Asked Transgender Woman 'What Are You?' Agrees To Significant Settlement

"They saw the writing on the wall."

Last November, Jessi Dye showed up at Summerford Nursing Home for what would turn out to be both her first and last day of work.

The morning started well. Dye attended a series of training sessions, completed paperwork, received vaccinations. She was excited about the new job; it seemed like there was a real future with the company, and they'd offered to pay for her training to become a certified nurse's assistant. 

But then over lunch, she was asked to go speak with Robert Summerford, the manager of the company, about her paperwork.

"What are you?" he asked her, as soon as she'd entered his office.

"It was exactly like being punched in the stomach," Dye recalled this week during a phone interview with The Huffington Post.

The feeling wasn't entirely unfamiliar to Dye, a transgender woman living in Vinemont, Alabama. She came out seven years ago, when she was 21, and since then, employment has sometimes been a challenge. Sooner or later, employers realize, as Summerford did, that the identity on her driver’s license doesn't match the gender of the person they've hired. But no employer, or prospective employer, had ever been as direct or as final as Summerford.

After Dye answered Summerford’s question, explaining that she was born male and was in the process of transitioning to female, he asked her, “What am I supposed to do with you?” and then instructed her to get her things and leave the premises. 

In March, Dye, with the support of lawyers from the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center, filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. On Thursday, the Southern Poverty Law Center announced that Summerford had reached a settlement with Dye. Rather than face a possible fight over Dye’s accusation in federal court, the company agreed to implement a policy that prohibits discrimination against job applicants and employees on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and to conduct sensitivity training concerning LGBT people. (The amount of money paid to Dye in the settlement has not been disclosed.) 

Sam Wolfe, a lawyer with SPLC, sees Summerford’s quick capitulation and favorable settlement offer as a positive sign that the climate toward LGBT people in the workplace is shifting around the country, even in states like Alabama, which have no statewide laws prohibiting LGBT discrimination.

"I think the takeaway here is that we have a small company that is represented by competent lawyers and they saw the writing on the wall," Wolfe told The Huffington Post. “It’s an admission that employers do need to pay attention to their obligations under federal law to not discriminate because of someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation.”

The laws protecting LGBT people from workplace discrimination are not as clear-cut as advocates wish. Despite more than two decades of effort, supporters have been unable to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit bias in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. However, outside of Congress, there have been signs of progress. Last summer, President Barack Obama signed an executive order protecting federal employees (and the employees of federal contractors) from anti-LGBT discrimination. Over the last several years, the EEOC has also held that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity are prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the commission has successfully sued both private and public-sector employers using that argument.

David Lopez, general counsel with the EEOC, said that pursuing such cases has been a “top priority” for the commission. Yet he acknowledged that while recent court rulings on the issue have mostly sided with the EEOC, not every court that has considered these cases has sided with the LGBT person charging discrimination. “The courts have not yet reached a consensus,” he said.

Both Summerford and his lawyer declined to speak with The Huffington Post about how they reached their decision to offer a settlement.

Dye, for her part, hopes the announcement of the settlement will make it clear to other transgender people that they do have legal protection in the workplace and will serve as a warning to employers that they can’t fire someone just because of their gender identity. “I don’t want anybody else to have to go through what I went through that day,” she said.

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