For the first time, the Obama administration is taking action in court to challenge job discrimination against transgender Americans.
The Justice Department announced Monday that it filed its first civil lawsuit on behalf of a transgender person: United States of America v. Southeastern Oklahoma State University and the Regional University System of Oklahoma, filed in federal court in that state.
The government claims a trans woman employed by the state was discriminated against because of her gender, a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Rachel Tudor was a tenure-track assistant professor of English from 2004 to 2011. She transitioned in 2007.
“By standing beside Dr. Tudor, the Department of Justice sends a clear message that we are committed to eliminating discrimination on the basis of sex and gender identity,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in a prepared statement.
One of Tudor’s attorneys, Jillian Weiss, wrote in 2011 about the case on Bilerico: “Dr. Tudor says that she was instructed by SOSU's human resource department to only use a single-stall handicap bathroom on a different floor than where her office is located. She presumes the direction came from Dr. Douglas McMillan, the vice president of academic affairs.” Weiss says McMillan reportedly inquired whether they could fire Tudor because of her “transgender lifestyle,” which he was quoted as saying “offends his Baptist beliefs.”
Tudor was the first transgender member of the faculty at Southeastern Oklahoma State. In 2009 she applied for a promotion to the tenured position of associate professor. Southeastern’s administration denied her application, overruling the recommendations of her department chair and a committee of tenured faculty from her department. Weiss says this was the first time the university had denied an English professor’s application for tenure and promotion after a favorable recommendation from the committee and the department chair.
Tudor filed complaints with the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when she was denied an opportunity to appeal the decision, which led to her termination in 2011.
“Retaliating against an employee for complaining about unlawful discrimination, as happened in this case, is also unacceptable under Title VII,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
The EEOC determined there was reasonable cause to believe this was a case of discrimination and handed the case to the Justice Department. In a statement Monday, the DOJ claimed that the university discriminated against Tudor by denying her application because of her gender identity, gender transition, and nonconformance with gender stereotypes.
“We will not allow unfair biases and unjust prejudices to prevent transgender Americans from reaching their full potential as workers and as citizens,” Holder said in the statement from DOJ. “And we will continue to work tirelessly, using every legal tool available, to ensure that transgender inpiduals are guaranteed the rights and protections that all Americans deserve.”
In addition to being trans, Weiss says Tudor is an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation and was the only tenure-track Native American faculty member in her department. She says she was also a well-regarded scholar of Native American studies, endowed by Southeastern’s Faculty Senate with an award for Excellence in Scholarship. Tudor was drawn to Southeastern because it lies in the historic boundary of the Chickasaw Nation.
Tudor said in a statement to The Advocate, “Learning about, embracing, and preserving my Native American religious and cultural traditions has been my life’s work.”
Weiss and her law partner, attorney Ezra Young, stated that they plan to intervene in the Department of Justice suit on behalf of Tudor, as permitted by federal law. Tudor is also represented by local counsel Brittany Novotny.
EDITOR'S NOTE: In addition to writing for The Advocate, Dawn Ennis provides media relations for attorney Jillian Weiss.