Employee Misgendering is No Laughing Matter

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The court case revolves around a transgender man who worked as a sergeant at Rogers State Prison in Georgia. After he came out as transgender and began his transition, he faced significant and continuous harassment at his workplace. This harassment came from coworkers, supervisors, and subordinates, despite his attempts to address the issue through proper channels. The harassment included being misgendered, derogatory comments, and physical intimidation, severely impacting his work environment and personal safety.


He sued the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDOC) under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging a hostile work environment, failure to promote, and retaliation. The district court initially granted summary judgment in favor of GDOC, concluding that the harassment he faced was not severe or pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment and that he could not establish a causal connection between his complaints (protected activity) and GDOC’s decision not to promote him.


However, upon appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit disagreed with the district court’s ruling on the hostile work environment claim. The appellate court found that the harassment he faced was indeed severe and pervasive, rejecting the notion that it constituted mere “rudeness and discourtesy.”


The harassment, which spanned across verbal abuses, misgendering, and derogatory comments, significantly contributed to an environment that he perceived as hostile and abusive. Here are some of the specific incidents and comments that were made illustrating the severity of his situation:

  1. Misgendering Over Prison-Wide Radio: His coworkers frequently ended their radio communications with him by deliberately calling him “ma’am,” ensuring that “the whole institution [could] hear it.” This form of harassment was particularly insidious as it occurred on a daily basis, sometimes three or four times each day, and was broadcast to everyone at the facility, including inmates.
  2. Derogatory and Humiliating Comments: He was subjected to comments that directly mocked his transgender identity. For instance, one coworker suggested that he must have a “dildo” in “her” pants. Others referred to him using dehumanizing terms like “that” and “it.”
  3. Belittling Nicknames: His direct supervisor taunted him by calling him “baby girl,” a nickname that not only misgendered the plaintiff but also sought to infantilize and demean him.
  4. Public Disrespect and Humiliation: In front of inmates, cafeteria staff members joked about transgender people and their genitalia. Such comments were not only deeply disrespectful but also jeopardized his authority and safety by undermining his status in front of the prison population.
  5. Refusal to Acknowledge Copeland’s Gender Identity: A nurse explicitly told him that she would not call him “sir” because that “wasn’t who [he] was,” openly denying and invalidating his gender identity.
  6. Physical Intimidation: An incident involving a female officer escalated to physical intimidation when she blocked the palintiff’s path, stated they could “fight,” pushed him, and later menaced him by circling around him in a vehicle while armed.


These incidents collectively contributed to a workplace environment that was not only hostile but also dangerous. The constant misgendering, public humiliation, and physical threats he endured made it clear that the harassment was both severe and pervasive, significantly impacting his psychological well-being and safety at work.


Key Takeaways for Employers:

  • Employers must take complaints of harassment, especially those related to gender identity or sexual orientation, seriously and investigate them thoroughly.
  • A workplace culture that permits or ignores harassment can lead to significant legal consequences under Title VII.
  • Training staff on diversity, inclusivity, and the importance of respecting all employees’ gender identities can help prevent instances of harassment.


Key Takeaways for Employees:

  • Employees have the right to a workplace free from harassment, including gender-based harassment.
  • It’s important to report harassment to supervisors or human resources promptly and to document these complaints and any incidents of harassment.
  • Understanding your rights under Title VII and other applicable laws can empower you to seek justice and remedies if you face discrimination or harassment at work.
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