The U.S. Office of Special Counsel on Thursday announced a landmark determination that the Department of the Army engaged in “frequent, pervasive and humiliating,” gender-identity discrimination against Tamara Lusardi, a veteran and civilian Army software specialist who transitioned from male to female.
Lusardi was working in the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center (“AMRDEC”) in Redstone, Ala., when she transitioned from male to female in 2010. During that time, the Army improperly restricted her restroom usage, referred to her with male pronouns and by her birth name and stopped giving her work, the OSC said in a report released Thursday.
In a telephone interview from Alabama, Lusardi, 49, who served in the Army from 1986 to 1993, including in Desert Storm, said she was called “sir” and “it” by co-workers and management after she legally changed her name, driver’s license and security clearance and began dressing as a woman.
Lusardi was also required to use a single-user, gender-neutral restroom, out of concerns that other employees might feel “uncomfortable” sharing a restroom with her.
The OSC, a federal investigative and prosecutorial agency, said coworker preferences alone “cannot justify discriminatory working conditions,” since it could reinforce the very stereotypes and biases that nondiscrimination laws are intended to protect against. According to the report, Lusardi should be able to use bathrooms designated for her gender identity.
The Army declined to comment on the determination, citing ongoing litigation over the matter.
Lusardi’s case is part of a broader push by the federal government and the OSC to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees in the government.
“I applaud Ms. Lusardi for standing up not only for her rights, but for those of all federal employees,” said Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner. “The Army deserves credit for seeking to right the wrongs that Ms. Lusardi faced and for creating a more welcoming environment for its LGBT employees.”
In July, Obama signed an executive order banning workplace discrimination against millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees of federal contractors and the federal government. The executive order prohibits firing or harassment of federal contractors based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and it bans discrimination against transgender employees of the federal government.
In a recent study by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force, 90 percent of transgender individuals report mistreatment or discrimination in the workplace, forcing many to hide their gender identity.
Discrimination forces many transgender individuals into extreme poverty, according to Sasha Buchert, staff attorney at the Transgender Law Center. They experience double the rate of unemployment, twice the rate of homelessness, and 85 percent more incarcerations compared to those who are employed, the study found.
Lusardi said she was unable to sleep because she was frozen out of work and told to stop speaking to co-workers about her transition.
“By then I was legally female and recognized by Social Security and Homeland Security,” she said. “I felt like it was unfair. But it was clear it was a condition of employment at that time.”
Lusardi grew up in an Air Force family and said she has long been proud of the work she does protecting troops in the field.
“I really care about my job, and I really wanted to be professional,” she said. “But people were saying, ‘Is it Todd or Tamara, I don’t know,’ and smirking at me, even after I had sent an e-mail explaining my transition. I just wanted to crawl under the table.”
Lusardi and the California-based Transgender Law Center filed a complaint to the OSC, which began investigating the case in 2012.
Activists say they are encouraged by recent legal victories for transgender individuals who lost jobs, and by positive stories about transgender characters on TV shows such as “Orange is the New Black” and “Transparent.” But there are still 32 states where firing workers for being transgender is still legal, the law center said.
The OSC report noted that the restroom restriction “had the effect of isolating and segregating” Lusardi from other female employees, “serv[ing] as a constant reminder that she was deprived of equal status, respect, and dignity in the workplace.”
The OSC investigation found no evidence that Lusardi’s gender transition had a discernible or detrimental impact on her or other employees’ work performance.
In response, the Army agreed to provide training to correct and prevent future discrimination, the OSC said. It also now permits Lusardi to use the restroom associated with her gender identity.
The Army agreed to the OSC’s recommendation to provide workplace diversity and sensitivity training, with a specific focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues.
Lusardi said she is busier at work these days, with the Army giving her back some of her workload since April.
“We have served our country in silence,” she said of transgender federal employees. “I hope my case and this decision will help other transgender people feel safe enough to bring their full authentic selves to work. This report makes clear that we don’t have to put up with being mistreated on the job just because of who we are.”