Gina Versace takes on Starwood Hotels and Resorts over trans discrimination

By : Billy Manes
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It’s an auspicious scene. Gina Versace is a few minutes late to a practice courtroom, a fake space, replete with mahogany on the 16th floor of the downtown Morgan & Morgan offices. Her designated attorney Carlos Leach – the press releases have been handled by super-attorney John Morgan’s son Matt Morgan, so heavy is the public relations lift here – is offering bottled water and apologizing.

“She lives just a few minutes away,” Leach says. “It shouldn’t be long.”

But Versace’s road to this point has been nothing if not long. She can borrow a few minutes.

For one, she’s lodging a discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc., which is no small task. She was employed as a banquet server by the company in 1998, and typically served up the bread and circuses with the other hundreds of service employees working in choreographed formation in the various convention halls of the Swan and Dolphin Hotels in Lake Buena Vista, or, more concisely, on Disney property. Both corporations have boasted their LGBT inclusiveness via documented policies that they use to boost their respective images.

Versace is a transgender woman, something she revealed to her employer in 2005 with all due human resources confidentiality. When she does enter the legal training grounds of a mock courtroom, it’s apparent that she is also a caring woman outright. She hugs this writer and that photographer before nervously sitting down to tell her story, a story that is becoming more familiar in the public arena and the private sector. The world isn’t leaning quickly enough toward the rights of transgender citizens, and, because of that, she says (and the lawsuit alleges), she lost her job.

The Morgan & Morgan offices are holding no secrets about the timing of the lawsuit, currently scheduled for court in February, and its alignment with the recent newsfeed of Caitlyn Jenner backlash and support (she “cleared the way,” Matt Morgan said at a July press conference). Jenner, formerly known as Olympic champion Bruce Jenner (before becoming background footage for the fishbowl known as “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”), has sparked a conversation in the country about transgender issues, and the night before our interview, she was the recipient of the ESPN Espy’s Arthur Ashe Award for Courage.

“I thought she was very brave, very encouraging, and I thought that it was very wonderful that she was able to be herself finally at this stage in her life,” Versace says of Jenner. “She is a role model to us all; not just transgender people, but people in general. I know sometimes people question whether she deserves a ‘courage’ award in general, but she is very courageous. Unless somebody is transgender themselves or has some kind of challenging feature in their life, you don’t realize how courageous it is to step forward.”

Versace claims, according to our interview and her legal filings, that Starwood staffers would continually “misgender” her. She claims that, despite its openly inclusive policies, Starwood staffers would ridicule her, discipline her for using the bathroom appropriate to her gender and generally try to make her life miserable. Starwood is of course denying the claims, but Versace – whose tears during our interview were certainly real – has a point. Policy posted or not, adherence to inclusive policies on equality issues doesn’t always make its way to middle management. The transgender disconnect is real.

Read about other recent court cases fighting for transgender rights.

In a strongly worded press release issued from Morgan’s office on July 8, the law firm alleges that Starwood broke confidentiality by revealing Versace’s gender to staffers, called her a “he” repeatedly, told her she “couldn’t work here” and effectively retaliated with employment termination because she is a transgender woman. The details get a little more intense through the 26 pages of the lawsuit, but in short, Versace is alleging that Starwood violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, something that was just clarified to include LGBT individuals this month.

“Since 1964, federal law has protected all covered employees from discrimination on the basis of gender,” Morgan & Morgan said in press release. “As a society, we have to decide how we define “gender.” Is it just a collection of body parts? Or is it who we are, a part of our human essence? The Supreme Court just made the answer very clear in its ruling on same sex marriage. In fact, the Supreme Court addressed this issue in the employment context twenty-five years ago when it said that gender-stereotyping is illegal.”

“The problem is, the majority of the lower courts have yet to grasp the concept of gender as something that transcends the physical body – especially when dealing with bigotry in the workplace,” it continues. “That’s why Gina Versace’s case is so important. She was harassed at work, called a ‘man,’ and ultimately terminated, because she didn’t fit into her employer’s stereotype. That’s illegal.”

Ever since – or at least on the day after the announcement of the new representation by Morgan – Versace has been battling the two-minute news blip treatment for her case, along with the same rolling eyes of the internet commenting world that Jenner has been faced with.

“I explained, and they didn’t put that on the newscast … I said, ever since birth, I’ve been 100 percent female mentally, 100 percent female emotionally and at least 95 percent female, physically, in my case,” she says. “I was fortunate in one way and not so fortunate in another way. Right now you can see some wrinkles.”

Versace isn’t terribly forthcoming about her past, other than to say that she was raised as a Christian, she is a former police officer, she is in her early 60s, that she was always a woman on the inside and, to some degree, the outside.

“Females all the time used to come to me and say, ‘I wish I had a butt like yours, I wish I had legs like yours, I wish I had skin like yours, I wish I had eyes like yours,’” she recalls. “At that time, before I was more than 51, I didn’t understand the context of what they were talking about, or realize how effeminate I was. At that time there wasn’t such a thing as gender identity or gender dysphoria, so all my life I couldn’t relate to men.”

Before being hired by Starwood, she says, she was terrified of revealing her identity lest she be killed, beaten or ridiculed. Even after starting her banquet serving job, though, Versace kept her identity as secret as she could (queries about exact dates of transition were understandably refused).

“I’d try to get my fingernails and hair long, but I’d have to cut them short all the time,” she says. “People swore and cursed at me, the management was cruel the more time they spent with me.”

The allegations in the suit paint a damning picture. After being hired in March 1998, she worked for seven years before completing the proper protocol to produce documentation to Starwood in 2005. She went to human resources and filed the documentation – a Social Security Card, Florida Drivers License and court-ordered name change – thereby correcting her employment records. She got a new employee ID card and was promised confidentiality. Because there were so many banquet servers, she could hide in the serving-tray dance and maintain some level of privacy. Allegedly, the human resources department did not comply, something that resulted in a “hostile work environment” on numerous occasions and more misgendering, even from human resources.The department allegedly did not change her gender in its records.

“When you have that ‘M’ on your license while you’re going through your transition, and you try to get work but you look female, it’s hard to get hired, or even go to a nightclub without feeling threatened,” she says. “That’s why people get depressed, or commit suicide because they can’t live up to these standards they try to put on people.”

Then, on June 14, 2012, nearly a year after filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, she got in trouble for using the women’s restroom at work, which led to her supervisors alleging – for no apparent reason – that she defecated in her clothes that day. She continued to work, the suit says, meaning the allegations of defecation were unlikely to be true. She didn’t change clothes. The list goes on: from eating a bagel on the clock while everyone else ate bagels on the clock (a supervisor was providing them) to wearing the wrong uniform for an event. And then, again, the restroom.

“Then they started asking very personal embarrassing questions about what I was doing in the female restroom,” she says. “A bunch of males were interrogating me about the restroom. That was bad enough, every time I saw someone use the restroom, it broke my heart. I was shaking all the time. I was being discriminated against.”

After a series of scheduling foibles in January 2013 left Versace on the scheduling short shrift, she was officially fired on March 21, 2013 for insubordination. Her attorneys believe the termination was in direct retaliation to internal and external (the EEOC and Occupational and Safety Health Administration) complaints filed by Versace. Both complaints were reviewed and dismissed by the agencies, though the door was left open for a federal lawsuit.

“This reason for termination was not the true reason,” the case reads, “but was a pretext for discrimination because of Ms. Versace’s gender and gender identity and in retaliation for her complaints, and breached the contracts between the parties.”

On July 23, Congressional Democrats doubled down on the recent court decision LGBT citizens are covered under the Civil Rights Act, largely because in many states, it’s still legal to be fired for being LGBT. At the hour-and-a-half press conference, Democratic luminaries like Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, spoke passionatelyin Washington, D.C., on the issue of filling in the gaps of discrimination in federal policy, introducing a piece of legislation called the Equality Act.

Perhaps more significantly, though, were the appearances of transgender leaders like Carter Brown, the transgender man from Dallas who is executive director of Black Transmen Inc. Carter fell victim to “mere office gossip” while at the top of his real estate game, and, “because Texas has no policies against discrimination,” he said, he was fired.

Mara Keisling, who founded and is executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality mentioned that in her 15 years of trying to convince politicians of the importance of trans equality, she would never have expected to see two transgender people at the podium. She also brought up some statistics: 90 percent of transgender people have felt discrimination in the workplace; 19 percent have been homeless. This bill, she said, is “really important for those of us who are still here,” directly referencing the death of Tampa woman India Clarke (a story we cover elsewhere in this issue).

In Versace’s case, however, the ball of equality is still unraveling, and the pain is apparent.

“They have a tendency of destroying the truth,” she says. “I was told by the investigator, ‘we don’t like to use the word lie.’ Instead of taking responsibility, they choose to cover it up and lie.”

We spoke with a Starwood representative who refused to go on record, though he was clearly on the defensive. Starwood issued a statement instead.

“Starwood did not discriminate in any way against this former employee,” the statement reads. “In fact, the allegations of discrimination were investigated by the Florida Commission on Human Relations in 2013 and the agency found there was no reason to believe that any discrimination had occurred. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission adopted this same finding.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, in its own independent investigation, also found no discrimination.  We are confident that when Starwood Hotels presents all of the facts at trial, the court also will find no discrimination occurred,” adding that Starwood is a strong LGBT ally and employer.

But, as Equality Florida’s Transgender Inclusion Director Gina Duncan says, whichever way this particular lawsuit goes, there’s still ample work to be done.

“It hurts to think that this is the classic case of people are afraid and act irrationally towards something they don’t understand,” she says. “And without the proper education of what it means to be transgender, and all of the misconception that has been woven around that, as our community has been more and more visible due to Caitlyn Jenner’s very open international disclosure of her transition. It is the responsibility of employers to avoid lawsuits, create a non-hostile work environment, and if they do it right, to create a positive environment for not only transgender people but anyone in the work environment.”


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