An African American transgender woman in the Chicago area is suing national convenience store chain Circle K, alleging she was fired from one of its stores and retaliated against after reporting co-workers' use of racial and transphobic slurs against her.
Judi Brown claims in the lawsuit filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois that a manager and other Circle K employees at the store in Bolingbrook, Illinois, harassed her based on her race and being transgender.
Brown, 26, said she was fired after she complained about the alleged discrimination.
“The discrimination and harassment were traumatizing and needed to be called out," Brown said in a press release by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing her. "It was not fair.”
The lawsuit comes a week after the Trump administration filed a brief with the Supreme Court arguing that transgender workers are not protected by civil rights laws.
In Illinois, the state's Human Rights Act includes specific protections for employees on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, the ACLU said in its release.
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When Brown worked as a Circle K cashier from May 2016 to June 2017, a store manager asked her "offensive and sexually explicit questions" about her romantic partners, sexual and reproductive anatomy and her plans for sexual reassignment surgery, the lawsuit claims.
She also alleges that a manager refused to refer to her by her chosen name in company documents and that another co-worker sometimes used male pronouns to refer to her and called her a “man in a dress.”
Brown also claims she "was forced to endure a racially hostile work environment" and that a manager used the N-word to refer to African American customers. The lawsuit says that a manager requested that employees closely watch African American customers and that another employee called Brown a n-----.
She says in addition that a manager made an "offensive comment" about the way “you people do your hair.”
Circle K said Wednesday in a statement that it "is an equal-opportunity employer with a diverse workforce, including transgender employees and fully cooperated with agency authorities during the previous investigation into this claim."
When Brown reported the alleged harassment and discrimination, she said Circle K failed to act and instead retaliated against her by denying her a promised promotion, overscrutinizing her work and ultimately firing her, the lawsuit says.
Brown was scheduled to work on a Sunday during Chicago’s Pride celebration, even though she typically worked a Monday-to-Friday schedule, according to the lawsuit. She said her bosses knew that she intended to perform at the parade, and when she learned she was scheduled to work, she informed a manager that she could not. She said she was never notified that she was fired and found out when she couldn’t clock in for work during her next shift.
“I was in absolute shock after being fired," Brown said. "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."
Carolyn Wald, an attorney with the ACLU in Illinois, said Circle K's actions were unacceptable and illegal.
“Employers should never advance the bigotry of some employees over the safety, well-being and success of others," Wald said.
Brown is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, including for lost wages and benefits, attorneys' fees and damages for emotional distress.