Rachel Tudor, a transgender professor whose tenure and promotion was denied at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, was awarded $1.1 million by a federal jury on Monday in a landmark Title VII case.
Tudor was hired by the university in 2004 as a tenure-track assistant professor in the English department and presented as male at the time. She began transitioning in 2007, becoming the university's first openly transgender professor.
According to the lawsuit, after notifying the university that she would be presenting as a woman at work for the 2007-2008 academic year, Tudor received a phone call from an unnamed human resources staffer who told her the school's vice president for academic affairs, Douglas McMillan, had inquired about firing her because her identity as a transgender woman offended his religious beliefs.
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The lawsuit also states the director of the university's counseling center, Jane McMillan, Douglas McMillan's sister, told Tudor to take safety precautions, because some people were openly hostile to transgender people. She also reiterated to Tudor that her brother considered transgender people to be a "grave offense to his [religious] sensibilities."
In October 2009, Tudor applied for tenure and a promotion to an associate professor position. Her application was denied, while the application of a similarly qualified male coworker was approved, the lawsuit claims. After Tudor asked for an explanation as to why her application was rejected, according to the suit, Douglas McMillan and another dean refused to provide her with one. Tudor then filed a federal discrimination complaint in 2010.
In March 2015, the Justice Department, then under the Obama administration, sued the university, with former Attorney General Eric Holder declaring that federal prohibitions against sex discrimination include protections based on gender identity.
On Monday, an eight-person jury voted in favor of Tudor on three counts: that she was "denied tenure in 2009-10 because of her gender," that she was denied "the opportunity to apply for tenure in the 2010-11 cycle ... because of her gender" and that the university retaliated against her after she complained about workplace discrimination. The jury then awarded her $1.165 million in damages.
“Southeastern Oklahoma State University places great trust in the judicial system and respects the verdict rendered today by the jury," Sean Burrage, the university's president, said in a statement sent to NBC News following the verdict. "It has been our position throughout this process that the legal system would handle this matter, while the University continues to focus its time and energy on educating students."
Troy Stevenson, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, an LGBTQ advocacy group, praised the court's decision and said it would have positive effects on similar cases in the future.
"It's phenomenal news, and it’s showing that gender identity is a part of gender, and discrimination comes down to old fashioned misogyny," he told NBC News. "The courts are seeing that."
Brittany Novotny, a member of Tudor's local counsel trial team and herself a transgender woman, said the case is the first of its kind.
"This is the first one of these Title VII civil rights cases for a trans person based on sex discrimination to go to a jury trial," Novotny told NBC News. "It is a pretty exciting day and a pretty big moment."
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