Zara reaches settlement with transgender shopper over alleged discrimination

The shopper, a 33-year-old writer and student, told NBC News they hope to raise awareness about transgender discrimination in public spaces.
People walk past a Zara store in Barcelona
A Zara store.Albert Gea / Reuters file
By Nico Lang

The international clothing retailer Zara reached a $30,000 settlement with a nonbinary transgender customer who reported experiencing discrimination in its New York City stores on multiple occasions.

Medina, a 33-year-old writer and student who uses they/them pronouns and requested that their last name not be used to protect their privacy, said they were shopping in the men’s section of a Zara store in 2016 when they were stopped by an attendant while trying to use the fitting room. The employee told Medina that they would not be able to use the changing area that most closely corresponds with their gender identity because they are “not a guy,” Medina recalled.

According to Medina, that happened at least two more times over the coming months at different Zara stores. At first, Medina said they felt “angry,” but the repeated incidents began to trigger intense feelings of gender dysphoria and the sense of being “invalidated,” Medina said.

“It sucked because I was feeling good about myself in wearing clothes I really like,” Medina told NBC News. “And for someone to infringe on that private space that you're holding for yourself — I'm not trying to be hyperbolic — but it felt like my human rights were being taken away from me in that moment, and I had no control over that.”

Medina reached the settlement with Zara in March and has now decided to speak out publicly to raise awareness around the issue. Medina said they initially decided to pursue action against Zara after speaking with trans and nonbinary friends and co-workers who had faced similar issues at other retailers. Friends told Medina that being refused access to gender-segregated public space happens to trans and nonbinary people “all the time.”

A 2015 study from the National Center for Transgender Equality found that nearly 1 in 10 trans people had been prevented from using a public restroom or changing area that matched their gender identity in the previous year, and 12 percent had been verbally harassed while using gender-affirming facilities.

Medina said they couldn’t sit back and accept this.

“I was thinking about everyone else that could have happened to or is happening to,” they said. “I thought, ‘Maybe if I say something and something changes, it might not happen to a 14-year-old kid trying to try on clothes.’ I wanted there to be a resolution where they had to be held accountable for how they are treating people who may not present as they think.”

Medina filed a complaint with the NYC Commission on Human Rights in 2016, and the commission opened an investigation. Four years after the initial incident, the parties finally came to a resolution, and Zara agreed to pay Medina $30,000 in emotional distress damages and to institute restorative justice measures to help prevent future discrimination in its stores.

According to Demoya Gordon, the commission's supervising attorney who settled the case, those measures include training all 1,100 Zara employees in the New York area on the city’s nondiscrimination laws. She said the company will also “post notices in the store so that folks know they can use sex-separated facilities that most closely align with their gender identity,” and it is working with the New York LGBT Center to create “an employment opportunity program for trans, gender nonconforming and nonbinary people.”

“We strive not only to get justice for the individual who has been impacted, but we also look for ways to have a broader beneficial impact for the community as a whole,” Gordon said in an interview. “If you can't use the restroom in accordance with your gender identity, it really curtails your ability to move through society. This is really a matter of making sure that everybody in the city can move through day-to-day life with dignity and in a safe and healthy manner.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Zara said the company is “pleased” that it was “able to collaborate with the Commission and find ways to improve the shopping experience for our customers in the transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming community.”

“The Commission’s recommendations are in line with measures that we have put in place over the last several years that address employee trainings, equal access in our stores, and employee opportunity programs, all of which focus on the LGBTQ community,” the representative said, adding that the company is “committed to continuously working to better meet the needs of our customers, employees, and the communities in which operate to ensure that all feel respected, welcomed, and included.”

According to the NYC Commission on Human Rights, the department has also recently worked with two fitness centers in New York to revise their policies to better accommodate trans and nonbinary people.

Medina said they are “overjoyed” at the outcome of their case, had FaceTimed with their mother and cried, not out of sadness but of joy.

“I’m a crier,” Medina explained. “I might cry right now.”

But as much as Medina is happy to have resolution, they hope the case sets a model for accountability that others can follow, whether they are corporate businesses or government municipalities. Currently, only 21 states have statewide laws explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in public accommodations, such as restrooms and fitting rooms, according to Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ policy think tank. The Equality Act, a federal civil rights law that would make what happened to Medina illegal in all 50 states, passed the U.S. House for the first time last year but has yet to receive a vote in the Senate.

“We can only do better than we did yesterday,” Medina said. “This feels like a step forward.”

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