Better Than Nothing

Gary Johnson is about to become the first transsexual to sue for discrimination under a new state law. The only catch: He must admit to being "disabled."

"I went in dressed as Gary, and I was upfront about everything," he says, smiling broadly. "They told me they would never treat me as anything but who I am. That's so validating."

He says it was an entirely different situation at his previous job, a nonprofit foster care facility.

"I get a little minor harassment outside of work -- at the gas station people will drive by and yell "dyke' -- but I can shrug that off," Johnson says. "The majority of it came from work, to a point where there was no way to tolerate it."

In his eight-page complaint filed with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, Johnson alleges that he has been "harassed, fired, laid off, and denied family or medical leave based on my ... sexual orientation and gender." The complaint says the harassment began two weeks after he was hired, when the executive director began asking Johnson's co-workers about Johnson's sexuality. In the complaint Johnson also alleges that as a result of his sexuality, he was locked out of his computer, reassigned to a new position, and barred from a staff meeting, and had his health insurance canceled. Johnson says his co-workers made frequent derogatory comments about his sexuality; also, Johnson's supervisor told him that management was keeping surveillance records on him.

Johnson complained of discrimination in late January, and a few days later he was fired. The next day, when Johnson objected to being fired, his job was reinstated. In mid-February, Johnson says his doctor told him not to go back to work because the "hostile work environment had injured my health."

The executive director of the nonprofit declined to comment on the case.

If Johnson's complaints can be verified in court, he should see full protection under the new law. "I don't think this is groundbreaking in terms of those conceptions of workplace discrimination law, other than that it is covering a previously uncovered group," says Stanford law professor Mark Kelman, who specializes in employment discrimination cases. "Even if it is problematic symbolically and politically to classify this under disability, this is not a new way of thinking about what an employer's obligations are to its employees."

Discrimination cases like Johnson's could award millions of dollars; Johnson is already thinking of the house he wants to buy and the sex-change operations for himself and a friend that he would pay for. But, he says, the lawsuit is not about money.

"The big thing is to be able to set a precedent," he says. "If we win, it can make a tremendous difference for the transgender community. It's about people being treated equally, about being seen as human beings instead of some sort of monster.

"[This law] does label us, and I'm not real happy about that, but we've all taken the attitude that it's better than nothing."

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