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Trans Veteran Sues Kentucky Nursing School for Discrimination 

Trans Veteran Sues Kentucky Nursing School for Discrimination 

Vanessa Gilliam

Vanessa Gilliam contends that administrators at Galen College of Nursing in Louisville interrupted her studies, misgendered her, and ultimately harassed her out of school. 


A transgender nursing student and Army veteran is fighting back after she says officials at national nursing school's Kentucky campus discriminated against her for being trans, resulting in her leaving the school, thus interrupting her education and interfering with her ability to support her children.

Vanessa Gilliam filed her lawsuit in Jefferson Circuit Court in Louisville September 25, alleging that Galen College of Nursing discriminated against her, according to a report from Louisville TV station WHAS. Gilliam is a U.S. Army veteran and a single parent who has custody of her children.

"I was really proud of myself that finally I was going back to school," Gilliam told WHAS. "They took that from me. They said the reason that they brought me in there was because I'm a man dressed like a woman. They talked to me about using the women's restroom and how they have to look out for everybody else and their safety." Gilliam seeks reimbursement for her tuition and books, court costs, and damages for emotional trauma.

Accredited by the Council on Occupational Education, Galen College of Nursing is a private, for-profit school that offers a two-year associate of science in nursing degree. In addition to the Louisville campus, Galen College has campuses in San Antonio, Cincinnati, and Florida's Tampa Bay area.

Gilliam's complaint alleges that two school officials interrupted her when she was studying for a lab test, bringing her into a private meeting where they hostilely referred to her as a "man dressed as a woman" and denied her access to women's restrooms on campus, claiming they were concerned about others' safety. As a result of her experience, Gilliam left Galen College.

"Galen College of Nursing values and respects all individuals," said Anna Kitson, marketing director for Galen College, in an emailed statement to The Advocate. "We have no specific policy on restroom usage, leaving that up to the discretion of the individual. Since this matter is under active litigation, unfortunately we are unable to provide further comment with respect to the specifics of this case."

Gilliam's allegations of transphobia recall those of another nursing student, Blossom Brown, who accused nursing schools of discriminating against her when she repeatedly applied for admission. As The Advocate reported, last month's season premiere of the Ellen show featured Ellen DeGeneres and her special guest, Caitlyn Jenner, presenting Brown with a $20,000 check to support the young woman's nursing education. Brown's story first made headlines when she was featured on an early episode of I Am Cait, E!'s docu-series about Jenner's life post-transition.

"I couldn't get into nursing school for like the sixth time because I'm trans," Brown explained to DeGeneres and Jenner. "People were looking at that, and you need to be looking at my hard work and the dedication that I put into that hard work."

Advocate contributor Tony Zosherafatain, a trans health advocate currently pursuing his master's in nursing at New York University, says he has also encountered transphobia in his medical education.

Gilliam remains optimistic. "I've come a long way," she told the Associated Press. "From the military, to getting custody of my kids, to being a single parent. I'm not going to let somebody tear me down and I'm not going to let this tear me down."

Gilliam is being represented by Shannon Fauver and Dawn Elliott, two well-known Kentucky litigators who broke ground when they filed Bourke vs. Beshear, the first lawsuit seeking marriage equality in Kentucky. In February 2014, a federal judge ruled in the same-sex couples' favor, determining that Kentucky's ban on performing same-sex marriages or recognizing those performed in other jurisdictions was unconstitutional. When then-Attorney General Jack Conway's refusal to appeal that pro-equality decision, Gov. Steve Beshear hired independent legal counsel to appeal the ruling all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where a 5-4 decision this June struck down all remaining marriage bans, including Kentucky's.

Despite the ongoing antigay practices in three Kentucky counties, where county clerks (including infamous Rowan County clerk Kim Davis) still refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, acceptance of LGBT people and marriage equality is on the rise in the state, Fauver told The Advocate.

"To Dawn Elliott and myself, [Gilliam's case] is just a continuation of our work with the same-sex marriage cases in Kentucky," Fauver said in an email to The Advocate. "When we filed the lawsuits in Kentucky, we did it for our clients, knowing that it could have a broader impact for the community. Vanessa [Gilliam] wanted to have someone with her when she was standing up for herself. Vanessa called our firm, as we originally filed [the] lawsuit to recognize same-sex marriage in Kentucky."

Fauver went on to point out that Galen College's alleged actions violate Title IX of the federal Education Amendments of 1972:

"Basically under Title IX all students in school receiving government funding are to be treated equally, and that was not the case here. I believe that transgender rights are the natural next step after the country has begun to actually embrace same-sex marriage. If all couples are legally equally, it should not matter if the parties are born men or women and want to marry someone born a man or a woman, everyone should be treated equally."

While Gilliam's lawsuit targets the allegedly transphobic behavior of school administrators, Gilliam praised her former classmates at Galen College in her remarks to WHAS, saying they were supportive when she began transitioning and embracing her womanhood on campus. The acceptance of her peers could indicate the goodwill of many within nursing education and the profession at large.

Indeed, a recent Journal of Emergency Nursing investigation finds reason for hope, reports Vocativ. The journal reports on a confidential incident in which a 40-something transgender man suffering from severe anxiety endured transphobic taunts and harassment from nursing staff in an emergency room. After the incident, the emergency nursing profession has rallied to develop trans-affirmative policies in treatment and care.

"This patient's story identifies new implications for emergency nursing practice when treating a transgender patient," said Matthew F. Powers, president of the Emergency Nurses Association, in a statement to EurekAlert. "Emergency nurses are on the front lines of treating more and more transgender patients. All patients must be treated with dignity and respect. We want nurses and their colleagues to understand how to give these patients the care and respect they deserve."

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Cleis Abeni

Cleis (pronounced like "dice") is a former correspondent for The Advocate.
Cleis (pronounced like "dice") is a former correspondent for The Advocate.