Late last month in the west central Florida city of Lakeland, a locally owned eye clinic got some eye-opening news straight from Washington, D.C. Something the owners of the Lakeland Eye Clinic did three years ago had earned them a place in the history books, and it was something so commonplace that it's happened at businesses across the country for decades without anyone making a fuss. But this year that eye clinic and a Michigan funeral home found themselves on the wrong end of two landmark lawsuits.
For the first time ever, a federal agency filed suit on behalf of two transgender women who were fired because they dared to transition from male to female at work. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined that not only were Brandi Bronson of Florida and Aimee Stephens of Michigan discriminated against because of their sex under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but that their employers were wrong to dismiss them for dressing and appearing in their true gender.
This means the right to be transgender and undergo a gender transition at work is going to be defended in a federal courthouse by lawyers representing the United States government.
As someone who just happens to be transgender, the filing of those lawsuits didn't make as great an impression on me as the fact that it's taken this long.
There have been a grand total of zero laws guaranteeing transgender protection in the workplace in the seven years since the failure the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2007. We've had two presidents, three congressional sessions, and two landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions, one just this week, bringing the number of marriage equality states to at least 25, plus two others in another federal court ruling on Tuesday, and the number rises as the impact of these decisions is fully realized.
But even though there is not one federal law that explicitly protects against discrimination based on gender identity or expression, the EEOC has been busy racking up some historic protections for transgender workers under Titles VII and IX of the Civil Rights Act. On April 20, 2012, the agency issued a landmark administrative ruling, Macy v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. That was the case of a Phoenix detective with a distinguished military record who claimed that her transgender status was the reason she lost out on getting hired as a ballistics forensics technician for the ATF office in a San Francisco suburb.
Mia Macy went on to win a judgment by the Justice Department the following year, that ATF had discriminated against her because she was trans, yet it took the U.S. Department of Labor two full years to provide transgender employees equal protection from nondiscrimination. And despite her obvious skills, Macy is still not finding work.
And although President Obama announced an executive order in July that would finally protect federal employees against discrimination on the basis of gender identity, the order still failed to protect transgender members of our military.
Outside the federal government lies a whole different closet, where transgender men and women live and work and fear for their jobs, their careers, their livelihood and ability to provide for themselves and loved ones.
It's inside this closet you'll find people who want to avoid being the next Brandi Bronson and Aimee Stephens ... and the next me. A transgender friend of mine who decided to abandon her transition to avoid losing her business and her marriage considers me her anti-role model, for what happened after I came out in corporate America.
I worked for a major television network and its local station in New York, one of the most liberal cities in America, and yet I feared that if I were to come out or someone were to discover my secret, I'd no longer see my name on the schedule. For the first five of those seven years, I wasn't a member of the staff, and as a "part-time" or freelance writer and producer, I knew that even if I had legal workplace protections, it would be easy for any manager to explain away a sudden decrease in the number of days I was scheduled.
After finally making staff at the network in 2012 and after doing my homework about its gender protection policy, I decided to come out, first to my managers, who deftly controlled and rolled out my transition on the job. It was a success beyond my imagining and a credit to the company where I worked.
The only downside was the unexpected, overpublicized tabloid coverage of my experience, and my subsequent health crisis that scrambled my memory, involuntarily ended my transition, and cost me the favorable treatment I had received from supporters and so many others. Even though I resumed my transition and left the company within a year of that downturn, I quickly learned all that bad press has quashed any chance I might have of continuing what had been a lucrative and successful career.
So I found something else to do, where I can still be me.
We who do transition on the job are often called "brave" and "courageous." I can't speak for anyone other than myself, but for me it was to survive; I am one of the 41 percent of transgender people who have attempted suicide. It was not because of any one thing related to my transition, but because I felt discrimination I faced every day made it impossible to live true to myself.
Suicide, especially in the wake of Robin Williams's death, is now better recognized as a social issue that needs to be addressed, along with transgender civil rights. Perhaps soon, people will see that protecting against gender discrimination is in itself one solution to reducing the risk of suicide, among those of us who stand up and say, "I am transgender, and I am a real person."
DAWN ENNIS is an award-winning journalist with 30 years experience in television, radio, and online news. She was the first trans woman in a position of editorial authority to come out at any of the major U.S. television networks. Since resigning from ABC, she has written for The Advocate and worked as a creator at Wochit.com as well as blogging at LifeAfterDawn.com.