Saks Defends Its Discrimination Against Trans* Employee

Photo: Ian Dagnall/Alamy.
Last night's Golden Globe Awards showed amazing strides for the trans* community, with major wins for the Amazon series Transparent, plus moving speeches by its creator, Jill Soloway, and star, Jeffrey Tambor. Yet, when it comes to society's acceptance of trans* people, we still have a long way to go. Just this morning, it was revealed that major fashion retailer Saks claims it has a right to discriminate against trans* people.
According to Jezebel, on December 29, Saks & Co. filed a federal motion asking that an ex-employee's discrimination lawsuit be dismissed because "transsexuals are not a protected class under Title VII" of the Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on race, religion, or sex in the workplace. The ex-employee in question, a transgender woman named Leyth Jamal, says she was terminated after speaking up about a conversation she had with her employer, in which she was asked to "separate her home life from her work life" by dressing more like a man.
Perhaps this isn't so surprising, given the enormous amount of discrimination trans* people face in the U.S. and elsewhere. Even though fashion can be somewhat more open-minded when it comes to alternative gender identities (think Givenchy's embracing of trans* model Lea T or Hood by Air's genderless runways), Saks is a major, mainstream department store that has a pretty conservative clientele. But, there's no question that the manner in which Saks has refuted Jamal's claims is offensive. In addition to denying Jamal's accusations as well as her rights, Saks' attorney attaches "[sic]" to Jamal's preferred gender pronouns — she, her, hers — indicating an error therein and ultimately denying Jamal the very gender identity she is fighting so hard to protect.
That insensitivity will likely hurt Saks' case in the long run. We are in the midst of a long-overdue increase in awareness of trans* issues due to both positive role models (pop-culture phenomenons like Transparent and Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst) and tragic events (the suicide of trans* teen Leelah Alcorn in December). With courts overturning bans on gay marriage throughout the United States, it's only a matter of time before trans* discrimination cases end up in the Supreme Court — and before the public at large demands equal rights for all genders.
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