A transgender nurse has been awarded $120,000 after the Iowa prison where he worked rejected his requests to use the men’s bathrooms and locker rooms.
A District Court jury in Polk County decided on Wednesday (February 13) that Jesse Vroegh should receive $100,000 for damages for sex discrimination and $20,000 for discrimination in equal access to health care benefits, The New York Times reported.
The case marks the first transgender rights case in Iowa since 2007, when the state added gender identity protections to the Iowa Civil Rights Act.
Vroegh, 37, sued the Iowa Department of Corrections (DoC) for workplace discrimination and damages related to being denied insurance coverage for a mastectomy and chest reconstruction after he decided to transition in 2014.
When the DoC denied Vroegh’s requests, it cited the “rights of the male officers,” adding that transgender issues were “too controversial,” according to the lawsuit.
The nurse claimed he was told he could use the unisex bathrooms in a different building, in an area where he did not work.
Speaking to The Times, Vroegh recalled how being denied access to the men’s facilities at the prison “basically made me feel like they had put a roadblock in front of me, trying to stop my social transition.”
He added that it was “like wearing a Halloween costume, being who you are on the inside and knowing you can’t be who you are on the outside” and said he “involuntarily” left the job in 2016.
The jury decided that the DoC’s response to Vroegh’s request broke the Iowa Civil Rights Act requirement that employers allow workers to use “restrooms in accordance with their gender identity, rather than their assigned sex at birth.”
Transgender nurse Jesse Vroegh surprised by jury’s decision
Vroegh said he was “astonished” by the outcome of his lawsuit.
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“It was about being in a country where you have rights and you are free and everybody should be treated equally,” he told The Times, adding: “It is worth it for anybody who comes up after me, who doesn’t have the voice to stand up to a big state entity.”
In a statement to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa, who supported his case, Vroegh said it made him “happy and proud” that a jury of Iowans had “recognised that I should be treated equally by my employer and provided the health care coverage I needed.”
“I thought it was an important thing to do for the transgender Iowans who come after me.”
— Jesse Vroegh
He continued: “The whole process of has been difficult and emotionally very trying for me. My life has been put under a microscope because of this case.
“But I thought it was an important thing to do for the transgender Iowans who come after me. I hope this decision means that they will be treated fairly in the future.”.
Activists hail victory for transgender rights in Iowa
In the statement, the ACLU of Iowa called the jury’s verdict “historic.”
The organisation stated that Vroegh’s lawsuit was “the first transgender rights case to be filed in Iowa district court since Iowa added gender identity protections to the Iowa Civil Rights Acts in 2007.”
Melissa Hasso, a lawyer who worked with Vroegh and the ACLU, said it was “a really important victory.”
She added: “It is a cutting edge victory nationally, let alone in Iowa.”