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Houston trans woman sues Saks Fifth Avenue over workplace discrimination

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by Megan Smith

Luxury retailer Saks Fifth Avenue may claim to have a culture of LGBT inclusion, but a former employee of the company’s Houston Galleria location tells a different story.

During her time as a Saks saleswoman, Leyth O. Jamal—who identifies as a trans woman—said she endured constant discrimination at work because of her gender identity. She reported being harassed by co-workers, being forced to use the men’s restroom, and that she withstood intentional and repeated use of incorrect male pronouns by her co-workers.

In 2012, after about five months of employment, Jamal was ultimately fired from her sales position. “I just wanted to do my job,” Jamal said. “But I was met with resistance at every step of the way.”

The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—the federal agency in charge of enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects workers from sex-based discrimination—has since issued a finding that there is reasonable cause to believe Jamal “had been exposed to a hostile work environment.”

Following the release of the EEOC’s finding, Jamal filed a lawsuit against Saks for “wrongful termination based on gender in violation of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, hostile work environment, retaliation, and breach of contract.” She is seeking unspecified damages.

Lawyers for the department store have since filed a motion to dismiss the suit, claiming that because Jamal is transgender, she is not protected from workplace discrimination under Title VII, has no right to sue, and should be responsible for paying the store’s legal bills. Saks’ attorneys also misgendered Jamal throughout the motion. This motion comes less than two weeks after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the U.S. Department of Justice believes that Title VII does, in fact, protect transgender government workers in discrimination cases and that the department will take appropriate legal action to enforce that protection.

Jillian T. Weiss, Jamal’s attorney, pointed out that Saks’ actions in this case do not match the company’s claims that it is paving the way for LGBT equality in the workplace. Despite the store’s score of 90 out of a possible 100 on Human Rights Campaign’s 2015 Corporate Equality Index, Weiss said that—in this case—Saks is “essentially claiming that transgender people shouldn’t have protection from discrimination in the workplace.”

The lawsuit is currently pending, and a judge has not yet ruled on Saks’ motion to dismiss. No date has been set for the hearing.

“I want people to know that fighting for what they believe in and standing up for their rights is going to be worth it,” Jamal said.

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Megan Smith

Megan Smith is the Assistant Editor for OutSmart Magazine.

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