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Federal Agency Files Landmark Lawsuits Against Transgender Discrimination

Federal Agency Files Landmark Lawsuits Against Transgender Discrimination

A federal agency made LGBT history today by filing the first federal lawsuits alleging workplace discrimination against people who are transgender. 

In two lawsuits filed in federal court today, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claims a Florida eye clinic and a Michigan funeral home fired two transgender women because they were transitioning from male to female. The agency says the women were fired for not conforming to their employers’ gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes. 

"An employee should not be denied employment opportunities because he or she does not conform to the preferred or expected gender norms or roles of the employer or co-workers," Malcolm S. Medley, director of the EEOC's Miami District Office, said in a statement announcing the lawsuits.  

In the Florida case, the EEOC claims that in July 2010, Brandi M. Branson was hired by the Lakeland Eye Clinic in the city of Lakeland as director of the company’s new hearing services division. At that time she was presenting as male and was hired with a traditionally male first name. About eight months later, the EEOC complaint says, Branson began wearing clothes and makeup consistent with a more feminine presentation.

The lawsuit, filed today in Tampa's U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, says, "Branson observed that coworkers snickered, rolled their eyes and withdrew from social interactions with her [after she began dressing femininely]." 

Two months passed before her supervisors requested a meeting regarding her attire. According to documents filed in court, Branson then revealed she was making a gender transition from male to female and would be legally changing her first name. Within weeks, the suit contends, ostracism by managers and coworkers intensified, while the same colleagues stopped sending Branson referrals. In June 2011 the clinic fired her, claiming it was eliminating her position, according to the suit. Branson says she was told she would not be replaced.

But the EEOC says just two months later, in August 2011, the Lakeland Eye Clinic hired a man to perform Branson’s job who presented in the workplace as a stereotypical male employee. The Advocate's calls to the clinic seeking comment were not returned. 

In a public statement, the EEOC says it filed suit after first trying to reach a settlement on behalf of Branson. The federal lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of money for damages to Branson’s income as well as injunctive relief. Branson and her attorney, Jillian Weiss, will hold a news conference tomorrow in Tampa regarding the lawsuit. 

In the Michigan case, a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit claims R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, which has operations in Detroit and two other cities, fired funeral director Aimee Stephens after she informed her employers that she intended to begin presenting at work as a woman, consistent with her gender identity. Calls seeking comment from the funeral home were not immediately returned.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, federal law "prohibits employers from firing employees because they do not behave according to the employer's stereotypes of how men and women should act," said EEOC attorney Laurie Young in a statement. 

The Human Rights Campaign hailed the lawsuits as groundbreaking. "The lawsuits filed today by the EEOC are historic," said Sarah Warbelow, HRC's legal director, in a post on the advocacy group's blog. "Transgender people continue to face some of the highest levels of discrimination in the workplace. The EEOC has the ability to alleviate these problems now and deserves immense praise for tackling the issue head on."

While the EEOC has previously applied Title VII to protect transgender people against workplace discrimination in cases brought before it, the lawsuits filed today mark the first time the federal agency has proactively brought charges against workplaces, alleging those employers violated federal law. 

Editor’s note: Brandi Branson is represented by attorney Jillian Weiss, who also represented the writer in a workplace discrimination case.

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