A transgender Vanderbilt University employee is suing the university, claiming she was bullied, harassed and viciously mocked by her co-workers after she began transitioning at work.
Olivia Hill, a U.S. Naval veteran who worked for the university’s cogeneration plant for 25 years, claims in a lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee on Wednesday, that the mistreatment she suffered on the job began in mid-2018, after she informed her employer she’d been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and would be transitioning at work.
Soon after, she learned that a direct supervisor was referring to her as “it,” a “trans freak,” and a “weirdo.” The negative reaction made Hill — the only woman employee at the plant — second-guess pursuing gender confirmation surgery, prompting her to delay the surgery until February 2019. She returned to work in May 2019, after the surgery, but the mistreatment continued. She says some people would leave rooms as she entered, while others made crude or sexually suggestive remarks.
For instance, Hill claims in her lawsuit that an assistant vice chancellor, who oversaw plant operations, commented to her about her “big feet” and asked if she shaves her chest, adding: “Ugh, the thought of you shaving your tits is gross.”
Another employee, asked her, in front of about 20 other employees in the breakroom, if she was a virgin and if he could “be the first to use her new vagina.” When she complained to her direct supervisor, he said “gross” and took no action to discipline the offending employee.
Other employees refused to acknowledge Hill’s gender identity, referring to her with male pronouns, with one in particular refusing to take direct orders from her, saying “that freak is not my boss and I will not listen to it.”
Hill says plant supervisors also refused to provide a women’s bathroom for Hill (or any woman visiting the plant) to use.
Though Hill says she complained to her superiors, they did nothing to remedy the situation, and even participated in the harassment, mocking her in front of subordinates. One time, after complaining about harassment she had experienced, the assistant vice chancellor reprimanded her, telling her she needed to “leave her emotions at home and just do her job.”
She filed complaints about the harassment she was receiving with the university and with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging discrimination. But instead of addressing her complaints, the school placed her on paid administrative leave, and passed her over for promotions.
In her lawsuit, Hill claims she was discriminated against on the basis of her sex, in violation of both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, the latter of which deals with sex-based discrimination in educational institutions.
She also claims the university unlawfully retaliated against her, in violation of both federal statutes, discriminated and retaliated against her based on disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and unlawfully discriminated against her under the Tennessee Human Rights cat. She is seeking damages for pain and suffering, as well as repayment for lost wages.
Interestingly, Vanderbilt actually touted Hill’s transition by posting a video touting the university’s transgender clinic, in which Hill talks about being transgender and her transition process — ostensibly to show how welcoming and accepting the university is. But Abby Rubenfeld, Hill’s attorney, told TMZ in an interview that the way her client was treated highlights the “stunning hypocrisy of Vanderbilt” when it comes to touting their allegedly pro-LGBTQ policies.
“They talk the talk, but Olivia is the first employee to actually transition while working there, and they didn’t walk the walk,” Rubenfeld said.
In response to an inquiry from Nashville FOX affiliate WZTV, the university released a statement defending its record on LGBTQ inclusion but declining to comment on the specifics of Hill’s lawsuit, citing its policy of not commenting on pending litigation to protect the privacy of the respective parties.
“We have taken intentional steps to help our employees feel respected, included and safe in their work environments, including providing resources for employees who identify as transgender, genderqueer or non-binary, as well as the managers who support them. Among the resources available is information on topics such as confidentiality and privacy, names and pronoun use, and support for employees who are transitioning,” the statement read. “We take complaints to the university seriously as we continue to move forward in our commitment to foster an inclusive community.”
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