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Transgender woman files suit against Aurora employer
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times
2011-05-18

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Meggan Sommerville—a transgender employee who has worked for a Hobby Lobby store in Aurora for 13 years—has filed two charges of discrimination alleging Hobby Lobby discriminated against her when it denied her use of the women's restroom and then wrote her up for using the women's restroom.

Sommerville began to transition from male to female in July 2010. That same month, Sommerville legally changed her name from Mark Thomas Sommerville and additionally had her Illinois driver's license gender marker changed from male to female.

According to Sommerville, she has been forced to use the men's restroom—a situation she finds "distressing," according to a statement. If forced to use the men's restroom, Sommerville said that she waits until there are no men using the facility. On Feb. 23, 2011, Sommerville utilized the women's restroom because she said she could not wait for the men's room to be vacant. In addition, she said that she has even modified her workplace intake of fluids to minimize being forced to use the men's restroom; additionally, she said that she waits for her lunch break to walk to a nearby business to use its women's restroom.

According to its website, Hobby Lobby sells "arts and crafts supplies, fabrics, baskets, silk flowers, needlework, picture framing, party supplies, furniture and related items." The company, based in Oklahoma City, Okla., has 475 stores in 40 states. In addition, the corporation has a web page devoted exclusively to ministry projects ( www.hobbylobby.com/our_company/ministry.cfm&; except for the Distribution Center on certain days during the winter holiday season, all locations are closed on Sunday, out of respect for the Christian beliefs of its founder, David Green.

On its statement of purpose page, the company says that it aims "to effectively serve our owners, employees and customers the Board of Directors is committed to, [among other things], honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles." (In an email to Windy City Times, Hobby Lobby said, "We are looking into this legal matter and will respond at an appropriate time.")

Sommerville told Windy City Times that when she initially informed co-workers and employers of plans to transition, the reaction was "mixed." She added that "some people were supportive. ... People have been pretty good about working with me and not being hostile." When asked who informed her that she would have to use the men's room, Sommerville said that "management was the conduit to how I was informed. This decision was made at a corporate office."

Sommerville added she's "the first transgender person they've had to deal with, so we're all in very unfamiliar territory."

Asked if she was aware of the company's conservative atmosphere, Sommerville responded, "Considering I grew up in a conservative Baptist background in Wheaton, I myself have very strong Christian beliefs. To me, I knew I would run into—and I don't want to vilify Hobby Lobby, because it's a good company—issues where people would see this as a spiritual issue instead of a medical one. There's been a lack of understanding. ... I was hoping for a little bit more cooperation."

"Transgender employees in Illinois are protected against discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment," said Sommerville's attorney, Betty Tsamis, in a statement. "We believe having access to an appropriate restroom facility is a term and condition of employment. Denying someone such access because of their gender identity violates the Illinois Human Rights Act. Since the restrooms are available to the general public, we believe Hobby Lobby's actions violate the public accommodations protections of the IHRA," Tsamis also said.

The case is pending before the Illinois Department of Human Rights (IDHR). The next step in the process is that the charges will be served upon the employer and the employer will have an opportunity to respond. From there, the parties are free to resolve the matter. If resolution fails, the IDHR will conduct a full investigation and move the charges through its appropriate channels which could result in a hearing before the commission or a civil court action.

Sommerville told Windy City Times that she would like to "be able to use the women's restroom without being written up, and [in the long term] would like some sensitivity training. It's never been about money.

"It's about common sense and fairness. If the governing body of the state of Illinois and the secretary of state's office sees me as female, and that's what's on my driver's license, I don't understand why a company can see me any other way."


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