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Transgender EMT's Discrimination Lawsuit Strikes Chord With Others Across U.S.

June 26--Grace McAllister's story is similar to that of many transgender women: a tale of attempted liberation thwarted by institutional oppression.

On a recent morning, McAllister, due to a lack of chairs, sat cross-legged on the wooden slats of her balcony at her bare bones Crestline cottage in the San Bernardino Mountains overlooking Waterman Canyon, and told her story.

McAllister claims to be the victim of workplace discrimination of the ugliest kind -- the kind that kills the human spirit, causes psychosomatic disorders and prompts suicide attempts. Her allegations are detailed in a federal lawsuit filed June 3 in U.S. District Court in Riverside against Bear Valley Community Hospital in Big Bear Lake, where McAllister worked as an EMT and ER technician from August 2003 through January 2015.

She said it all started in November 2011, when she began the transition from male to female.

"I knew there would be problems, I just wasn't expecting those kinds of problems," said McAllister, 50, chain smoking cigarettes, wisps of long blonde hair brushing against her face. "People naturally form assumptions about people. They fear what they don't understand."

McAllister clearly is not alone. Her lawsuit is one of dozens of discrimination lawsuits filed across the nation in recent years on behalf of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community, illustrating an escalating battle for civil rights underscored by recent controversy over gender neutral restrooms and increasing awareness that is prompting employers to adopt policies ensuring workplace protections.

On June 14, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel in Washington D.C. announced it implemented a policy to ensure transgender people are treated fairly, and properly, in the workplace. The policy mandates, among other things, employee training, use of proper gender expression, and allowing transgender employees to use the restroom specific to their gender preference.

In 2013, gender dysphoria, the clinical term associated with transgender people, was included in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, the authoritative guide used by health care professionals nationwide.

But there is still a ways to go.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, only 19 states and Washington D.C. have laws in place prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.

Legal Challenges

McAllister alleges in her lawsuit she was constantly bullied, belittled and discriminated against by hospital staff, from top administrators to low-level orderlies, while undergoing her lengthy gender transition.

They called her an "ugly girl," made fun of how she dressed and wore her makeup, and refused to use proper gender expression by continually referring to McAllister as a "he" instead of a "she." Hospital staff accused her of being a sexual predator of male patients, and administrators changed her medical insurance policy so it would not cover McAllister's gender confirmation surgery. Blue Cross and Calpers ultimately ordered the hospital to reinstate McAllister's coverage.

Bear Valley Community Hospital director John Friel declined to comment for this story.

McAllister said she began suffering panic attacks, developed agoraphobia -- the fear of being in public -- and attempted suicide in January 2015, when she went out on disability due to stress. She never returned to work.

The allegations in McAllister's lawsuit echo those made by other transgender women in other lawsuits filed in the last year.

In May, Wells Fargo settled a discrimination lawsuit filed last July in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of Marco "Marlo Kaitlin" Gallegos, a transgender woman who alleged that while working at the bank's consumer call center in El Monte was heckled repeatedly by her colleagues during her transition from male to female. She was not allowed to use the restroom of her choice, and conditions became so unbearable she thought of committing suicide, according to the lawsuit, which has since been settled, the terms of which are confidential.

In May 2015, an Orange County transgender woman filed a workplace discrimination lawsuit in federal court against Barnes and Nobles, where she worked as a manager in the Huntington Beach and Irvine stores from 2007 to 2013. The plaintiff, Victoria Ramirez, alleged she was repeatedly harassed by employees and that her boss told her that her appearance was "upsetting the store customers" and that employees would lose respect for her as store manager because she was transgender. That case was also settled under a confidentiality agreement.

In January, Minnesota-based Deluxe Financial Services, Inc., a check printing company, settled a similar workplace discrimination lawsuit with a transgender woman in Phoenix for $115,000.

In 2012, the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission adopted a strategic enforcement plan to ensure lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law prohibiting workplace discrimination based on gender, race, religion, and national origin.

According to the commission's website, attorneys for the government agency filed 16 lawsuits or legal briefs in the last five years addressing a "multitude of LGBT discrimination-related issues."

J. Bernard Alexander, a Santa Monica-based attorney who represented Ramirez in the Barnes and Nobles litigation and has represented more than a dozen other LGBT clients in similar cases, said the courts can expect to see even more lawsuits filed as the battle for civil rights in the transgender community rages on.

"Development in the law, coupled with an emboldened transgender community, is causing individuals to be more willing to file lawsuits to assert their legal rights," Alexander said in an e-mail. "Years ago, lawsuits by gay plaintiffs were a phenomenon. Lawsuits based on gay discrimination are now commonplace. I suspect that the increase in transgender lawsuits is following a similar course."

Transgender Discrimination

According to a 2011 survey titled "Injustice at Every Turn," sponsored by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 90 percent of transgender people surveyed reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job. More than 6,400 transgender and gender non-conforming people from across the U.S., the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands participated in the study.

The study also revealed that 47 percent of those surveyed said they were fired, not hired or denied a promotion because they were transgender or "gender non-conforming." Additionally, 71 percent reported they attempted to avoid workplace discrimination by hiding their gender or gender transition.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality who co-authored the 2011 survey, said McAllister's story is a familiar one.

"This story, as McAllister is telling it, I've heard it a million times. It sounds totally believable," Keisling said. She said the survey she assisted on was recently redone as the United States Transgender Survey, and the updated findings are expected to be published in the next couple of months.

Although the U.S. Census does not track the transgender population, Keisling said best estimates show that transgender people comprise between 0.3 to 0.5 percent of the U.S. population -- between 986,000 and 1.6 million people.

Grace's Story

In the last five years, McAllister, born Cooper Alexander McAllister, has seen her life transition from one of elation and self-liberation to one of utter despair. She grew up confused and shameful about herself, wondering why she felt so uncomfortable in her own skin.

"All my life I felt I was female and that there was something wrong with me. I never shared it with anybody," said McAllister. "Since I was five years old I acted like my sister. I liked cooking, I liked playing with dolls. I liked the colors in her room: pink, purple, pastels."

When she finally realized she was transgender and began her transition in November 2011, McAllister thought it would be the beginning of a new life.

"I was really happy. I spent all those years thinking there was something wrong with me, and then I knew there wasn't. It was normal," said McAllister. "My whole life finally made sense to me. I understood why I was so different. Why my true nature was always female, in every way."

As it turned out, McAllister's new life was nothing like she envisioned. Instead, she allegedly endured a series of traumatic events that ultimately led to her suicide attempt in January 2015.

"You get to a point where you think things won't get any better, and that things will be better without you," McAllister said.

While driving on fog-obscured Highway 18 near the Heaps Peak landfill in Running Springs, McAllister decided she was going to drive her Jeep off the mountain. She let go of the steering wheel.

As the Jeep drifted toward the edge of the mountain, McAllister, at the last minute, had a change of heart. She grabbed the steering wheel, overcorrected, and veered back across the highway, her vehicle nearly overturning.

"I couldn't do that to my friends and family," said McAllister. "To me, it's a very selfish act. Your life is over, but your friends and family have to suffer."

Now, McAllister is alone and broke. Her disability has run out and she was forced to work out a $25-a-month payment plan through Wells Fargo to avert foreclosure on her cottage. She said she can't even drive because she cannot afford to pay her vehicle registration.

And because she is transgender, McAllister said no place will hire her.

The 2011 "Injustice at Every Turn" survey found that transgender people were four times more likely to live in extreme poverty and experienced unemployment at twice the rate of the general population, with 16 percent of those surveyed reporting they had resorted to prostitution or selling drugs to eke out a living.

At least one advocacy group has stepped up to address transgender unemployment and poverty. The Transgender Economic Empowerment Program (TEEP) at the Los Angeles LGBT Center assists transgender people in finding work and developing professional skills.

TEEP Program Manager Drian Juarez said that many transgender people are facing the same plight as McAllister.

"This is happening to transgender people constantly. It's a very common experience in our community, unfortunately," Juarez said.

McAllister said she could never go back to Bear Valley Community Hospital, even if she prevails in her lawsuit, which she hopes will draw more attention to the issue of discrimination against transgender people in the workplace.

"I don't think I can work in health care ever again," McAllister said. "It makes me feel sad, because I really loved it. My patients were my children. It was my way of being a mom."

She has started a GoFundMe account at https://www.gofundme.com/gracemcallister, hoping it can bring her some financial relief.

"I've worked hard all my life, and I could be months away from losing my home," said McAllister. "I've lost almost everything, just because I was being honest."

Copyright 2016 - San Bernardino County Sun, Calif.

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