When Erin Taylor, 29, began working at a Decatur, Ga., Chick-fil-A in August last year, she thought it would be a turning point: a chance to climb up “the corporate ladder” and, after nearly two pandemic years, a way to gain some financial stability, she said.
The federal lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for Northern Georgia, accuses the Decatur fast-food restaurant of violating her civil rights by “subjecting [Taylor] to ongoing discrimination” on the basis of her gender identity, and for firing her after she raised the issue repeatedly with management. (The lawsuit refers to Taylor, who transitioned three years ago, by her pre-transition name because her legal name hasn’t been changed.)
Chick-fil-A, one of the most profitable fast-food chains in the country, is known for touting its “family-owned” and “biblically-based” principles. The company also has drawn attention for its anti-LGBTQ stances — most notably in 2012 when the company’s chief executive, Dan Cathy, said he was opposed to same-sex marriage. The company later said that its culture was “to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect” and that it would leave the same-sex marriage debate to the government and political arena.
In 2019, the company pledged to stop donating to organizations that oppose gay rights. Still, the Daily Beast reported that as recently as last year, Cathy has helped fund efforts to derail the Equality Act, a federal-level effort to protect LGBTQ individuals from discrimination.
In a statement shared with The Washington Post, a lawyer for IJE Hospitality, which oversees the Decatur store, wrote that the company has “vigorous policies and procedures to prohibit harassment, discrimination and retaliation.” (Chick-fil-A Inc. is not a defendant in the lawsuit.)
“IJE Hospitality is committed to creating and maintaining a workplace that is welcoming, inclusive and values all people,” the statement read. “IJE Hospitality will continue to defend against these claims in court.”
Taylor’s discrimination lawsuit comes amid increased violence and political animus against LGBTQ communities across the country. In addition to an onslaught of anti-LGBTQ bills, this past Pride Month saw unprecedented protests and attacks, and fatal violence against the transgender community has been on the rise for years.
According to the lawsuit, Taylor began working at the Atlanta-area Chick-fil-A to train as director of operations. Her first day on the job, Taylor was eager to make a good impression, she recently told The Post. But as she began preparing for the evening rush at the fry station, a male co-worker began hurling lewd sexual comments at her from across the kitchen, Taylor said.
Taylor said she tried to deflect the attention, ignoring the catcalls or saying she wasn’t interested. But the harassment, which she said took place in front of store management and other co-workers, only escalated: Taylor said another male co-worker joined in.
“There was literally a physical demonstration of him giving and performing oral acts,” Taylor said. The behavior was so over the top that a couple of female co-workers tried to intervene, telling the men to leave her alone, Taylor said. But most of the restaurant staffers either laughed or did nothing, according to Taylor.
“I was terrified because, one, this is my job, and this is my first day and this is already going on,” Taylor said. But she was also scared of what the unwanted attention could bring: The only person at the Chick-fil-A who knew she was transgender at that time was the person onboarding her, she said. What would happen to her if those male co-workers found out?
According to the lawsuit, the harassment continued throughout her first week at the fast-food restaurant, with Taylor talking to multiple managers to try to address the problem. Eventually, she raised the issue with the store owner, Joe Engert, the complaint alleges. During the conversation, Taylor disclosed to Engert that she is transgender. “I wanted it to be handled with a certain of level of care,” she said.
Engert, who is mentioned by name in the lawsuit, did not respond to a request for comment.
Taylor’s lawsuit alleges that Engert told her he would look into her claims, while adding that she ought to look at it as an “honor” that as a transgender woman, “someone liked her enough to hit on her.”
“I was completely appalled,” Taylor said. “To hear this coming from my direct superior. ... I felt at that moment isolated and unprotected.”
Shortly after the meeting, Engert spoke with the man who had been harassing her, Taylor said. Once the meeting was over, Taylor’s co-worker returned to the kitchen, enraged. He yelled homophobic slurs and threatened to beat Taylor, the lawsuit alleges. Because of the sudden shift in the man’s behavior, Taylor said she believes Engert outed her to her co-worker.
Afterward, Taylor felt as though the restaurant turned against her. Her lawsuit alleges that for four months, she was regularly misgendered at work by multiple co-workers and taunted with homophobic and transphobic comments in front of management and customers.
“If a customer said, ‘Thank you ma’am,’ [other staffers] would say, ‘You mean sir,’ under their breath,” Taylor said. Management did nothing to prevent the harassment, she claims.
According to UCLA’s Williams Institute, transgender people are four times more likely than their cisgender counterparts to be the victims of violent crimes, including rape, sexual assault and aggravated assault. Last year was considered the deadliest for transgender and gender nonconforming people on record, with at least 50 killings, according to the LGBTQ advocacy organization the Human Rights Campaign. Since the organization began tracking fatal violence in 2013, Black trans women have represented two-thirds of all known victims.
Taylor’s experiences at work left her on edge, feeling increasingly unsafe, depressed and suicidal, she said. Taylor, who is Black, couldn’t help thinking about the disproportionately high rates of violence against trans women of color, she said: “If something were to happen to me, would anyone even care?”
On top of that, Taylor has accused the Chick-fil-A branch of retaliating against her and sabotaging her at work. As she continued raising the abusive behavior to her managers, her management training ceased altogether, she alleges.
The store fired Taylor in November for tardiness and for allegedly walking off during her shift. Taylor’s lawsuit claims she had asked to leave work early because of the ongoing harassment, which her supervisor agreed to, and that co-workers with similar infractions had not been terminated as a result.
Nearly a year after first working at Chick-fil-A, Taylor says she struggles to recognize herself. She is constantly on guard, finds it difficult to trust people and experiences anxiety and panic attacks, she said.
“That change in myself is really sad ... because that wasn’t who I was,” Taylor said. “I was this young lady full of life, full of personality, excitement and drive and ambition.”
Taylor is seeking damages, including for lost wages and benefits and “mental and emotional suffering,” according to the complaint. She said she hopes the lawsuit inspires other transgender people to stand up for themselves.
“What I’m asking, and I don’t think it’s too much, is that I can walk into a room and I don’t have to fear for my life,” Taylor said. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask of a job.”