Jessi Dye was excited about her new job at the Summerford Nursing Home in Alabama. Her experience watching her grandmother be put in a nursing home when she was younger made her want to help others who end up in the same situation. “She felt alone a lot of the time,” the 28-year-old said. “I wanted to be there for people, make it a little brighter place for these people who might not have somebody to visit them.”
She had also been working in fast food, but this job would come with better pay, better hours, and the possibility of fast advancement.
Yet she would only spend four hours actually doing her new job. After going through half a day of training, she says she was told to report to the manager’s office after lunch. “And the first thing the manager said to me when I stepped into his office is, ‘What are you?’” she said. “That’s not a question you ask me as a person, it’s a question you ask some little knickknack… It’s honestly not even a question for a pet.”
As a transgender woman, she had changed the photo on her driver’s license to match her gender expression, but her gender marker was wrong. That was what the manager was looking at as he asked her blunt questions about her gender. Getting a driver’s license updated can be difficult; more than 40 percent of transgender people across the country go without an ID that matches their gender identity, and 11 percent say they were denied in an attempt to update it. But having an ID that doesn’t reflect someone’s gender identity is correlated with much higher rates of discrimination and harassment.
“I can’t describe easily how that felt,” she said of that first question the manager asked her. “The closest thing I can say is that it felt like somebody punched me in the stomach.” She says that the manager not only told her he was letting her go just hours after she started, but that he confirmed it was because she is transgender.
“I walked out the door of the nursing home, said my goodbyes to the ladies I’d been working with, and made the hardest phone call of my life to my wife to say I couldn’t support us the way I’d planned on,” she said. “It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had.”
She has since received some good news: On Thursday, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represented her in her lawsuit against Summerford, announced that the nursing home has agreed to pay her a financial settlement, as well as to implement a workplace nondiscrimination policy for sexual orientation and gender and to provide LGBT training for human resource employees, including the manager who fired Dye. A representative of the nursing home declined to comment on the settlement.
The policy change is the most important part for Dye. “That was more of a victory for me than any money could have ever been. Making sure the world’s a little bit safer for the next person who comes along,” she said. “I don’t want anybody to ever have to make that phone call I made that day.”
The loss of a job can be catastrophic, and losing her job at the nursing home was a blow for Dye and her wife. “Our financial stability was completely taken out from under us,” she said. She was able to rescind her two weeks notice at the fast food job, but her entire shift was laid off just a couple of months later. After that, she spent six months looking for work until she found the retail job she has now. “It’s hard to find a job in Alabama anyway, but one that’s openly accepting and easy to work with, not so much,” she noted.
The hope is also that such a case, which is likely the first of its kind won against a private Alabama employer, resonates beyond Dye. “There still seems to be a misperception among many employers that they can fire employees at will for any reason or no reason at all,” said Sam Wolfe, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “But there are federal protections against individuals because they are transgender, and we’re hopeful this lawsuit will raise awareness.”
Federal law doesn’t explicitly enumerate gender identity as a protected class against workplace discrimination. But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled that employer discrimination on that basis violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on sex. Just in April, it ruled that the Army illegally discriminated against a transgender civilian employee by forcing her to use a single bathroom. Yet just 19 states and Washington, D.C.have laws prohibiting employment discrimination that include gender identity. The Equality Act, introduced in Congress in July, would explicitly ban employment discrimination against all LGBT people, but has not yet been passed and doesn’t have any Republican sponsors.
This is part of what motivated Dye to take action in the first place. “It was never about money,” she said. “It was about doing what’s right, standing up and and letting it be known you can’t do this to people, you can’t treat people like objects.”
This blog originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on September 11th, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media.