DES MOINES, Iowa – A transgender nurse who was barred from using the restroom corresponding with his gender identity and denied transition-related care won a discrimination lawsuit against the state of Iowa this week.
The jury awarded Jesse Vroegh $120,000 in damages on Wednesday.
Jurors found that the state engaged in discrimination by forcing Vroegh, 37, to use the female restroom at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, where Vroegh worked as a nurse for about seven years.
“This whole lawsuit process has been difficult and emotionally very trying,” Vroegh said in a statement. “My life has been put under a microscope. But I do it because it’s important for all the transgender Iowans who come after me.
“I want them to be treated fair and equally.”
Almost a year ago, Vroegh filed suit against the Iowa Department of Corrections, the Iowa Department of Administrative Services, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield and Patti Wachtendorf, the previous warden at the women’s prison in Mitchellville. Wellmark was later dismissed from the lawsuit.
In his suit, Vroegh – who was represented by the ACLU of Iowa, the ACLU LGBT Project and cooperating attorney Melissa Hasso – claimed all of the listed defendants treated him differently than other male employees solely because he is transgender.
Vroegh, who was born with female anatomy but has identified as male since he was 7, alleged that the department turned down his request to use men’s restrooms and locker rooms, and that the Iowa public employees insurance plan contained a specific exclusion that denied him health coverage for transition-related surgeries.
In January 2017, the state elected to change its health plans to cover gender transition surgeries, Hasso said. While that was a step forward, Hasso pointed out that the move came too late for Vroegh.
“Because the state has the authority and the power to add and remove coverage exclusions … then, presumably, they may elect to remove that in the future,” she said.
“If the state decides to appeal this, we welcome a ruling from the appellate court that specifically sets out that such targeted exclusions against protected groups of people in Iowa violates the Iowa Civil Rights Act as a matter of law,” she continued.
After the verdict was announced, the Department of Administrative Services did not return a request for comment, though the department previously declined to discuss the litigation.
The Iowa Department of Corrections is “working with the Office of the Attorney General to review the decision and evaluate our options,” said spokesman Cord Overton, who responded on behalf of the department and Wachtendorf.
The ACLU of Iowa called the verdict “historic,” noting that Vroegh’s lawsuit was “the first transgender rights case to be filed in Iowa district court since Iowa added gender identity protections to the Iowa Civil Rights Acts in 2007.”
By having gender identity – or the gender a person identifies as, no matter what sex organs he or she was born with – named as a protected class, transgender Iowans have legal rights against discrimination in education, employment, housing and public accommodations.
“The import of the ruling today is that any plan that contains that coverage exclusion better beware, because this jury found that that was discriminatory,” Hasso said.
“The same is true for bathroom use,” she continued. “You need to let transgender people use the single-sex facilities consistent with their gender identity, or face finding that you are breaking the law.”
Part of a larger issue
Vroegh’s claim comes just weeks after the Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of two transgender women who are seeking to overturn Iowa’s Medicaid ban on transition-related surgeries.
The Iowa Code governing Medicaid classifies transition-related surgeries as “cosmetic, reconstructive or plastic surgery” despite some of those same procedures, such as mastectomies, being covered routinely for other illnesses.
The code also outright bans coverage for surgeries for the specific purpose of sex reassignment even though, when prescribed by a doctor, transition-related surgeries are recommended by most professional medical organizations.
After years of denials, the women, Carol Ann Beal of northwest Iowa and EerieAnna Good of the Quad Cities, filed a lawsuit challenging the ban in 2017. In June, a judge ruled in their favor, agreeing the ban violated the Iowa Civil Rights Act and the state constitution’s equal protection clause.
Outside of Iowa’s courtrooms, transgender rights have been a source of heated debate.
As of January, the injunction on President Donald Trump’s ban on transgender troops serving in the military was lifted by a D.C. appeals court.
Due to other cases on the issue, the decision to let the ban stand had no immediate impact, according to the Washington Post, and the defense department was still allowing transgender people to enlist and serve as of last month.
Additionally, more than 70 members of Congress signed a letter accusing the U.S. Agriculture Department of “inappropriate … overreach” for pushing the national 4-H youth organization to dump its more welcoming LGBTQ policy.
The letter sent to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue requested that he explain his agency’s role in getting the 4-H organization to remove the controversial policy.
The Register first reported in November that a Trump administration official at the USDA requested that 4-H rescind the LGBTQ policy – a move that led to the firing last year of John-Paul Chaisson-Cárdenas, Iowa’s top 4-H leader.
The error of their ways
Vroegh started using what would be considered a male name in third grade and has presented in traditionally male clothing since 2000, he wrote in his civil rights complaint filed in 2016. He informed his supervisors at the Mitchellville prison in 2014 that he was transgender and planned to begin his transition to living as a man full-time, he said at the July 2016 news conference announcing the filing.
Since mid-2015, Vroegh has used men’s facilities in public places and asked people to use male pronouns when speaking to or referencing him. In a meeting with his supervisors, Vroegh said he asked them to “establish policies related to issues affecting transgender employees.”
He also said he asked to use the restrooms and locker rooms matching his gender identity but was “forced to use a separate facility from everyone else.”
The unisex facility in which he was required to dress and store his belongings didn’t have a shower, according to an ACLU news release in July 2016, so in addition to “isolating him from all of his co-employees … Vroegh has no option for showering at work.”
In April 2016, Vroegh said he was “informed that no policy for transgender employees … would be written, since transgender issues are ‘too controversial.’”
Vroegh no longer works for the state. Since December 2016, he has worked as an assistant director of nursing at a private facility, which Hasso declined to identify.
At his new workplace, his co-workers are “fully-supportive of (his) gender identity and have allowed him to use the men’s facilities,” Hasso said.
While the attorneys in this case expect an appeal, Hasso hopes the state recognizes “the error in their ways.”
“They can prevent further lawsuits by doing the right thing,” she said. “But until we have that ruling from the courts, in terms of setting forth, as a matter of law, this is what you are required to do, we may still have these issues.
“But through this case, we are going to get that ruling.”
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