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Black Trans Woman Sues Circle K for Discrimination, Harassment

Judi Brown

Judi Brown says she was subjected to transphobic and racial harassment at a Circle K store in Illinois.

A Black transgender woman is suing the convenience store operator Circle K, saying she endured anti-trans and racial harassment while working at an outlet in Illinois.

The suit filed Wednesday in federal court by Judi Brown says coworkers at a Circle K in Bolingbrook, a suburb of Chicago, called her "a man in a dress," in addition to using other transphobic slurs and the n word, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.

Brown also alleges she was subjected to "offensive and sexually explicit questions" about her reproductive anatomy, romantic partners, and plans for transition by the store's manager, the suit states. The manager refused to update company documents to use Brown's chosen name and sometimes referred to her by male pronouns. When Brown reported to higher-ranking company officials that she was being mistreated, they took no action on the matter, according to the suit, but instead she was denied a promotion and micromanaged.

Brown was a cashier at the Bolingbrook Circle K from May 2016 until June 2017, when she was fired. Her manager had scheduled her for a shift the last Sunday in June, the day of Chicago's Pride parade, even while knowing Brown planned to perform in the parade, the suit says. "Brown followed procedure to call off the Sunday shift and was stunned to find that she had been fired the next day," says a press release from the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which is representing Brown.

"I was in absolute shock after being fired," Brown said in the release. "I followed all the rules for taking off on that day so I could celebrate with my community -- and they picked that day to terminate me. I felt so humiliated."

"I was terminated because I am an African-American transgender woman and because I refused to stay quiet about the discrimination I was going through," she added. "The discrimination and harassment were traumatizing and needed to be called out. It was not fair."

The suit charges that Circle K violated the Illinois Human Rights Act's bans on discrimination based on gender identity, sex, and race. It further alleges violation of Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans sex discrimination. Some courts have held that Title VII applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear cases this fall that turn on this interpretation, and its ruling could leave LGBTQ employees without that means of redress, the ACLU of Illinois notes. This would be particularly devastating for people who live in states without inclusive antidiscrimination laws, but Illinois is among the states that have such laws.

"An employee cannot be fired simply because they are transgender, and they cannot be fired for speaking out about racist and transphobic harassment in the workplace," Carolyn Wald, LGBTQ Project staff attorney with the ACLU of Illinois, said in the release. "Circle K's actions were unacceptable and illegal. Employers should never advance the bigotry of some employees over the safety, wellbeing, and success of others. Employers must do better to support transgender employees, particularly transgender employees of color."

Brown's suit seeks compensation for lost wages and benefits, plus punitive damages and legal costs.

The Sun-Times sought comment from Circle K's corporate office, which has yet to respond. A representative at the Bolingbrook store declined comment.

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