In a rare jury trial, a transgender woman has been awarded $1,165,000 for discrimination when she was denied tenure at Southeastern Oklahoma State University (SOSU). Changes between the Obama and Trump administrations resulted in the unique outcome.
Rachel Tudor had begun teaching in the English department at SOSU in 2004, but had not yet transitioned. When she started presenting as a woman a few years later, a vice president reportedly asked a human resources employee whether she could be fired because her gender identity offended his religious beliefs. The department’s tenure review committee recommended her for tenure, but that vice president — along with a dean who repeatedly misgendered her to her face — reversed that recommendation without explanation and refused to meet with her so that she could appeal. They also ignored a unanimous ruling from the Faculty Appellate Committee that she should be allowed to reapply for tenure.
With support from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Tudor sued in 2010, alleging discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects against discrimination on the basis of “sex.” In 2014, former Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice would recognize gender identity claims under that discrimination, and in 2015, the department filed its own suit against SOSU, which Tudor joined.
The case was proceeding, but this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed that policy, abandoning support for transgender discrimination cases. The department settled its suit with SOSU in August, and Tudor proceeded with her case on her own, which is how she wound up with a jury case.
“I want to thank the jury for being fair, impartial and deciding the case on its merits,” Tudor said after the verdict was announced Monday.
The jury did not find that Tudor had endured a hostile work environment, but did agree that she had been denied tenure and the opportunity to reapply for tenure because of her gender.
SOSU president Sean Burrage issued a statement Monday responding to the verdict that did not acknowledge any discrimination had occurred. “Southeastern Oklahoma State University places great trust in the judicial system and respects the verdict rendered today by the jury,” he said. “It has been our position throughout this process that the legal system would handle this matter, while the University continues to focus its time and energy on educating students. All legal questions should be directed to the Oklahoma Office of the Attorney General.”
Jillian T. Weiss, an attorney who has represented Tudor in her fight, emphasized to BuzzFeed, “We can win even when the government is not recognizing our rights — we can take on the US government, and take on state governments, and we can win. Transgender people are protected from discrimination and employers should take notice, whether the government is on your side or not.”