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Iowa High Court Recognizes Anti-Trans Discrimination in Historic Win

Jesse Vroegh

The Iowa Supreme Court's decision affirms that gender identity discrimination is prohibited by the state's civil rights law.

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday to uphold most of a 2019 jury verdict that decided the state had discriminated against a transgender state prison nurse when it would not allow him to use the men's locker rooms or restrooms at the facility. The prison also denied him access to gender-affirming surgery because of his gender identity.

The court's decision to recognize gender identity discrimination is a huge victory for LGBTQ+ advocates. The decision is also a win for Jesse Vroegh (pictured above), the former nurse at Iowa's Mitchellville prison for women. The jury awarded him $120,000 in damages for emotional distress, and the high court upheld that award as well as the payment of $348,000 to cover his attorneys' fees.

"This day has been a long time coming. I am so happy that my state supreme court has recognized that transgender people like me should be treated just the same as everyone else when it comes to medical care -- that if a doctor says I should receive medical treatment, I get the treatment," Vroegh said in a news release from the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.

"I am doing this so that other transgender people do not have to go through what I have. I am a nurse and I see on a regular basis how important it is for people to be treated equally when receiving medical care," he added. "It's important for all people to be treated with dignity and respect."

Rita Bettis Austen, the ACLU of Iowa legal director, noted the historic victory and the importance of the decision in affirming nondiscrimination protections passed by Iowa's legislature in 2007. Vroegh's suit, filed in 2017, was the first one related to transgender rights since the law was passed.

"Despite those longstanding protections, Mr. Vroegh's employer, the State of Iowa, repeatedly denied his requests to use the men's restrooms and locker rooms consistent with his gender identity at work, and the state's employee health insurance program excluded coverage for the medically necessary gender-affirming surgery for transgender employees, even though it covered the same procedures so long as they were not to treat gender dysphoria," Bettis Austen said in the release.

An Iowa Department of Corrections spokesperson told the Associated Press in a statement that a new agency director and prison warden have been put in place since Vroegh was an employee.

"The DOC does everything it can to create a safe and accommodating environment for all its employees," the statement provided by spokesperson Nick Crawford said.

The Supreme Court did reject Vroegh's argument that he suffered sex discrimination as well as gender identity discrimination.

"Discrimination based on an individual's gender identity does not equate to discrimination based on the individual's male or female anatomical characteristics at the time of birth (the definition of 'sex'). An employer could discriminate against transgender individuals without even knowing the sex of the individuals adversely affected," the court's decision reads.

The court also said Vroegh could not sue the state's insurer, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, which said its plan at the time did not cover gender-affirming care. That changed in 2017, the AP reports.

The full court decision can be read here.

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