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EEOC Cracks Down on Transgender Harassment

transgender pride parade

As the discourse surrounding transgender rights in the U.S. continues, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is cracking down on unlawful treatment of transgender employees.

T.C. Wheelers Inc., a restaurant that operates a bar and pizzeria in Tonawanda, N.Y., has agreed to pay $25,000 and provide other relief to settle an EEOC lawsuit alleging the company harassed and drove out a transgender employee.

“The EEOC considers protecting members of the LGBTQIA+ community to be an important enforcement priority,” EEOC New York District Director Yaw Gyebi Jr. said in a statement. “We will continue to assure that transgender employees receive the full benefit of federal anti-discrimination laws in all industries.”

According to the lawsuit, the owners and staff of the restaurant made crude comments to an employee who is a transgender man, including telling the worker that he “wasn’t a real man” and asking invasive questions about his transition and genitalia.

The lawsuit also alleged that the owners repeatedly and intentionally misgendered the employee and failed to correct the behavior of employees and customers who did the same. The employee reported the harassment on several occasions, but the behavior continued until he was compelled to resign.

The terms of the settlement also include:

  • T.C. Wheelers must institute and enforce equal employment opportunity policies that include a strong and clear commitment to preventing unlawful sex discrimination and harassment, including discrimination and harassment towards transgender persons.
  • All owners, managers and employees will be required to complete training on federal anti-discrimination employment laws, with a special emphasis on issues relating to gender identity and expression.
  • The company must provide annual reports to the EEOC regarding its implementation of these and other terms of the decree.
  • The EEOC will retain the right to inspect the company’s business records and premises to ensure compliance.

T.C. Wheelers did not respond to SHRM Online’s request for comment.

Transgender Activist Weighs In

Ben Greene, an international speaker and CEO of BG Trans Talks, said the T.C. Wheelers situation is a microcosm of what many other transgender employes deal with in the workplace.

“So many trans folks deal with workplaces that fall somewhere between unwelcoming and hostile,” he said. “I hope this ruling will act as a beacon of hope for those people and a kick into action for their employers.”

Greene, a transgender man, said issues concerning transgender people have been so politicized in the U.S. that using someone’s requested names and pronouns in the workplace is considered “too divisive,” resulting in managers refusing to step in and support the transgender employee.

He encouraged cisgender people who disagree with the T.C. Wheelers ruling to imagine how it would feel if others misgendered them or called them a name that wasn’t theirs.

“Our names are our most fundamental truths,” Greene said. “To have that erased by your co-workers is extremely painful.”

How to Protect Transgender Employees

Despite transgender inclusion at work reaching record levels, these workers still experience harassment and discrimination.

A 2021 report by the Williams Institute, part of the UCLA School of Law, showed that:

  • 48.8 percent of transgender employees reported experiencing discrimination based on their LGBTQ+ status.
  • 43.9 percent reported not being hired because of their LGBTQ+ status.
  • 43.8 percent of transgender employees reported experiencing verbal harassment during their careers.
  • 36.4 percent said they changed their physical appearance.
  • 27.5 percent said they changed their bathroom use at work.

In many cases, the verbal harassment transgender employees experienced came from their supervisors, co-workers and customers, the report found.

“At the end of the day, allowing harassment to continue is an active choice on the side of the [employer],” Greene said. “It is giving them permission to continue their actions.”

He outlined two simple ways HR can prevent harassment against transgender workers:

  • Build cultural and structural support. Create policies that protect your employees from harassment. Enforce those policies or include them in performance reviews and promotion criteria. Make sure employees understand and respect those policies. Educate the workforce about inclusive language and the LGBTQ+ community.
  • Be proactive in your support. Many transgender employees are hiding their gender identity, wondering if their workplace will be a safe place to come out, while leaders say they’ll develop a policy or spread education when it’s needed. Tell your workforce, before they ask, that the employer is supportive of transgender workers. Additionally, huge margins of LGBTQ+ people, especially people of color and members of Generation Z, are actively searching for employers with a strong commitment to LGBTQ+ inclusion.

With continued workplace harassment and more states passing laws restricting LGBTQ+ rights, Greene explained, building support for transgender employees “is more important now than ever.”


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