By Gwendolyn Ann Smith
In 2012, a transgender woman by the name of Victoria Ramirez was in the early stages of her transition. She also had a job as a bookseller at a Barnes & Noble book store in Irvine, California.
While she had not started to live full time in her preferred gender role, she had started to take hormones, had begun to grow out her hair and sometimes wore her nails polished while at work.
Her manager spoke up, telling Ramirez that customers were complaining about Ramirez’s appearance. Further, the manager told Ramirez that theirs was a “neighborhood store,” and that Ramirez should “think of the children” who shopped at the store.
A year later, Ramirez came out to her manager and sought to begin to transition in the workplace.
Ramirez’s manager was having none of it. Ramirez was forbidden to discuss her transition at work without a manager present, was forbidden to wear skirts and was not allowed to use the women’s facilities.
Ramirez was eventually let go for calling in sick, after Ramirez’s insistence that she was having stress-induced panic attacks due to her work environment.
While Barnes & Nobel’s human resources department did later tell Ramirez that what the Irvine, California store did was wrong, and presumably attempted to place her at a location elsewhere, she was eventually not allowed to work elsewhere based on an assessment by Ramirez’s former manager.
Barnes & Nobel, as you would expect, has not spoken about the case. They have, however, pointed to their track record in support of transgender employees. That support does not, apparently, extend to a manager at the Irvine, California location.
This is the most recent in a string of similar anti-discrimination cases.
At a Brooklyn location of Forever 21, sales associate Alexia Daskalakis’ bosses allegedly mocked her after she started her transition in 2014. She was eventually let go without explanation.
Likewise, Saks Fifth Avenue eventually settled a lawsuit against the company after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memo making it clear that Title VII protections extend to gender identity. The company had initially been arguing that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not cover their former employee, Leyth Jamal. Jamal was harassed in the workplace — including by male co-workers who asked if she was a sex worker — and was required to present as male at the Houston, Texas location she was employed at.
These cases come in the wake of steps taken by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President Obama, including lawsuits of their own to protect transgender workers Brandi Branson and Amiee Stephens in Florida and Michigan, respectively. This also follows the landmark 2012 Macy v. Holder case that first included transgender people under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
A report published in 2013 titled “A Broken Bargain for Transgender Workers” spoke to the difficulties transgender people like myself have in the workplace. We face an unemployment rate that is twice the rate of the population as a whole, with 44 percent of transgender people being underemployed. Transgender workers are four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000.
Meanwhile, Congress cannot pass a transgender-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act and people make up horror stories to keep us out of appropriate public accommodations. You see, those fights over transgender people in bathrooms — a topic that I am yet again going into — extends into all of these cases, as employees were barred from gender appropriate facilities.
When I transitioned, I was working at what was then Kinko’s Copies, long before FedEx made them part of their brand. While my story is nothing like what Ramirez or any others I named above faced, I can certainly empathize with the challenges behind transitioning in the workplace. My store’s owner handled my transition fairly equitably, although the store’s manager eventually forced me out while the owner was away.
At that time, of course, there was no such recourse, and not an EEOC that would have interceded on my behalf if things had gone much worse. Seeing my transgender siblings have equal protection under the law is heartening.
Much like Ramirez’s manager chastised her to do, I also “think of the children.” Unlike her, my thoughts are for the transgender youth of our world who may enjoy a world where they can transition on the job with less fear of discrimination. I expect my “neighborhood store” to reflect all those in that neighborhood — and that includes transgender people like me.
As I mentioned, Saks Fifth Avenue settled the case that Leyth Jamal brought against them. I expect to see the cases against Forever 21 and Barnes & Nobel go down similar roads. I do worry about how things will stand after the Obama administration is over, but am heartened by the case law being created now.
Likewise, that I can be so sure of the outcome of these cases is a sure sign of a turning point for transgender rights. We are seeing our rights upheld, and we are gaining enough support to make a stand for our rights in the workplace, rather than simply taking the abuse we are handed.
We still have a long way to go, and I hasten to add that having these protections does not stop employers and others from violating our rights in the first place.
Make no mistake, however — it is a vital thing to be able to throw the book at those who might infringe upon those same rights.