Circle K – the national convenience store chain – fired an African-American transgender woman after she complained about the harassment and discrimination she experienced. Judi Brown today filed a federal lawsuit in response to Circle K’s harassment, discrimination, and retaliation, asserting that Circle K violated state and federal law.
“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,” said Ms. Brown in response to the filing. “The discrimination and harassment were traumatizing and needed to be called out. It was not fair.”
Soon after Ms. Brown started working at Circle K’s Bolingbrook store, her manager began targeting her with invasive and offensive questions, including about Ms. Brown’s reproductive anatomy. Circle K allowed a coworker to harass Ms. Brown with transphobic slurs, calling her a “man in a dress” and a “prostitute.” This same coworker also called Ms. Brown a “n****r.” Ms. Brown reported the relentless harassment, but Circle K did nothing. Instead, Circle K retaliated against her for complaining.
After a year of escalating harassment, Circle K fired Ms. Brown after scheduling her for a last-minute shift the Sunday of Chicago’s Pride celebration. Ms. Brown typically worked only Monday through Friday and Circle K knew that she intended to perform in the Pride Parade that Sunday. Ms. Brown followed procedure to call off the Sunday shift and was stunned to find that she had been fired the next day.
“I was in absolute shock after being fired. 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,”said Ms. Brown.
“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. 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,” said Carolyn Wald, LGBTQ Project Staff Attorney, ACLU of Illinois.
Ms. Brown’s lawsuit takes on added importance as the Supreme Court of the United States prepares to hear the case of Aimee Stephens, a Michigan funeral home director fired because she is transgender. While federal courts across the country have found that federal anti-discrimination laws protect LGBTQ employees, Ms. Stephens’s case will determine whether employees can be fired simply for being transgender. Two other cases argued on the same day will decide whether employees can be fired simply for being lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
Regardless of what the Supreme Court decides, the Illinois Human Rights Act includes specific protections for employees on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. Nevertheless, if the Supreme Court decides against the plaintiffs in these three cases, LGBTQ employees could lose the right to bring these kinds of discrimination claims for being LGBTQ in federal court. This result would have an especially devastating impact on LGBTQ employees in places without state-level protections.
“Even in Illinois, discrimination against transgender people, especially trans women of color, still happens. We deserve to be respected at work just like everyone else,” said Ms. Brown. “My hope is that this lawsuit will show that what happened to me was wrong and no one else should have to put up with it.”