Monday, April 11, 2011

Who Is a Man? Another example why Hunter College's gender-neutral bathrooms are necessary

The following article is just another example of why I am proud of my alma mater, Hunter College, for being one of the first campuses in the nation to install gender-neutral bathrooms.  It was an initiative of the Hunter College Women's Rights Coalition years ago (which I was the president of for 2.5 years); VP Ayravainen and the Health & Wellness Office were very helpful. 

N. Jerin Arifa
National NOW Board of Directors
National NOW Young Feminist Task Force, Chair
NOW – NYS Young Feminist Task Force, Chair
National Organization for Women (NOW)

New York Times:
A Lawsuit's Unusual Question: Who Is a Man?By RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA
Published: April 10, 2011

What is a man? For El'Jai Devoureau, this is not a rhetorical question.

Mr. Devoureau, who was born physically female, is a man at the Motor Vehicle Commission, at the Social Security office, at home, at job interviews. But what about at the urinal?

In a case with a truly unusual set of factors, Mr. Devoureau filed a discrimination lawsuit on Friday that could break new ground in New Jersey and across the country, turning on the question of who is or is not a man. An employer fired Mr. Devoureau because it said only a man was allowed to do his job: watching men urinate into plastic cups at a drug treatment center.

Mr. Devoureau, 39, says he has identified himself as a man all his life. In 2006, after he began taking male hormones and had sex-change surgery, he adopted the name El'Jai (pronounced like L. J.). A new birth certificate issued by the State of Georgia identifies him as male, as does his New Jersey driver's license, and the Social Security Administration made the change in its records.

"As long as I've been a person, I've lived as a man," he said in an interview. "At age 5, I did everything a boy did: I climbed trees, I played football, I played with trucks. Most of the people in my life, all they know is I'm male."

Last June, Urban Treatment Associates in Camden hired Mr. Devoureau as a part-time urine monitor; his job was to make sure that people recovering from addiction did not substitute someone else's urine for their own during regular drug testing. On his second day, he said, his boss said she had heard he was transgender.

"I said I was male, and she asked if I had any surgeries," he said. "I said that was private and I didn't have to answer, and I was fired."

Calls to Urban Treatment were not returned. But after Mr. Devoureau made a complaint to the state's Division on Civil Rights, the treatment center filed a response in January saying that Mr. Devoureau's dismissal "was not motivated by, nor related in any way to, any discriminatory intention."

Civil rights laws and court decisions allow limited cases of favoring one group over another, like giving preference to women for jobs as nurses in maternity wards. In its January filing, Urban Treatment said that firing Mr. Devoureau was legitimate, "since the sex of the employee engaged in that particular job position is a bona fide occupational qualification" — implying that Mr. Devoureau was not really a man.

Mr. Devoureau's suit, filed in Superior Court in Camden, is not the first job discrimination case brought by a transgender person, though those remain rare. But Michael D. Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, said it was the first employment case in the country to take on the question of a transgender person's sex.

Mr. Silverman's group and the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher are representing Mr. Devoureau.

New Jersey laws ban job discrimination based on a long list of criteria like age, religion, sex and race; in 2006, the state added "gender identity or expression" to that list. But five years later, Mr. Silverman said, no cases using the gender identity passage have been brought to a verdict, though others might have reached settlements.

New Jersey is one of 12 states that ban discrimination based on transgender status; New York State does not, but New York City does.

Mr. Devoureau now has another part-time job, as a package handler for a shipping company. Although his $10-an-hour post at the treatment center would hardly strike most people as a dream job, he wants it back. He says he needs the additional income to support himself and his 18-year-old son, and in a weak economy, he will take what work he can find.

Mr. Devoureau guards his privacy, refusing to discuss precisely what changes have been made to his body, or to say what name he was originally given, and he knows that his case could force such things into the open.

"They were judging me for who I am, not for the job I was being asked to do, and that's wrong, and I was hurt," he said. "I'm doing this so everyone knows it's wrong, so it doesn't happen to anyone else."

A version of this article appeared in print on April 11, 2011, on page A18 of the New York edition.


Elana said...

This case has absolutely nothing to do with gender neutral bathrooms, and it's inappropriate to imply that it does.

The relevant legal issue is whether considering a trans man to not be a man for purposes of this job qualification constitutes discrimination based on "gender identity or expression" or one of the other categories protected under New Jersey law.

Gender neutral bathrooms do nothing to fix this problem. Gender neutral bathrooms are important and useful, absolutely, but by saying they're relevant in this case you're suggesting that the solution to trans people's genders being considered less valid than non-trans people's genders is making more non-gendered options available. It's not--considering trans people's genders legitimate and valid is. Just because this case has to do with peeing and trans people doesn't mean it has to do with gender neutral bathrooms.

Jerin said...

Hi Elana,
Thank you for your comment. Let me clarify. You are absolutely correct that if someone chooses to identify with a certain gender, s/he should not face difficulties, which is certainly what this case is about. However, I think this case has very much to do with gender-neutral bathrooms because my personal form of feminism would like to see an end to separation based on gender, facilitated by an end to sexism of all forms - so that separation would be possible. Just as his job is discriminating against him by not considering him to be a man, gender-neutral bathrooms were conceived for people who faced difficulties, including violence, as a result of being trans gender. I also know people who refuse to identify with a particular gender, because our society's constructed gender roles are detrimental to all. The issue IS the same - society's constructed definition of gender, and the rigidness of the definition.

Elana said...

Hi Jerin, thanks for responding.

The thing is, you could have just as easily said "this case is an example of why trans inclusive non-discrimination policies are necessary" or "another example of why it's important to let trans people change their legal documents to match their genders"--and been much more relevant. The connection between the situation in this article and gender neutral bathrooms is incredibly tenuous, and it really doesn't make sense to connect the two in this context unless gender neutral bathrooms are the only form of trans activism you're familiar with or that you find relevant.

To be really clear about where I'm coming from: I'm trans and genderqueer. I am very familiar in both an activist and a personal context with why gender neutral bathrooms are helpful and necessary. I've done a lot of work advocating for gender neutral bathrooms, as well as other important issues like trans inclusive health insurance, non-discrimination clauses, and the ability to change records. You do not need to convince me that gender neutral bathrooms are a good thing, or that society's coercive enforcement of a rigid gender binary is a bad thing.

The broad issues at stake are connected, but it's important to consider how often non-trans activists respond to trans people's desires to have their genders respected by saying what we really need is an end to gender, rather than the recognition, respect, and an end to coercive and transphobic gender enforcement that trans people are actually demanding. You responded to a case that's about a trans man not being recognized as a man by talking about ending gender distinctions; do you see how that plays into the pattern of non-trans activists appropriating trans concerns that I just mentioned?

There were a dozen more relevant trans activist issues you could have connected this case to, several of which also could have easily been connected to Hunter College if that was a major goal. Choosing to talk about gender neutral bathrooms was puzzling at best, deeply problematic at worst.

Jerin said...

Hi Elana,
I think there is a misunderstanding going on here that is not communicated well online. I would love to speak to you more about this as someone who has been personally affected by this. I am sure you have much to teach me, and perhaps I could help clear up misunderstandings you have about where I am coming from. Please email me at youngfeminists at so we could set up a call or meet in person? Thanks!