Gender ambiguity and cultural norms clash in the industrial workplace

In this edition of In the Trenches, Acme's first transsexual truck driver gets fired for doing what comes naturally.

Rusty Knutson was diagnosed with Adult Gender Identity Disorder. In short, Rusty believed that he was a woman born with the wrong hardware. In public, he dressed and acted as a male, but, at home, long before the diagnosis, he habitually dressed in female garb and used the name Norma Lee.

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Determined to make the necessary structural changes, Rusty completed a long course of psychological counseling. Afterward, an endocrinologist prescribed a regimen of estrogen to prepare Rusty for the event. Rusty began dressing as a female on a full-time basis.

Several years into the estrogen therapy, Rusty applied for a job piloting one of Acme’s trucks to deliver products to customers located within 200 miles of the company’s loading dock. During the 90-day probationary/training period, he presented himself as a male and used the men’s bathroom. Early on, however, Rusty told Al Bumen, the logistics supervisor, about the transsexual issue and that soon he would be coming to work as Norma Lee, a woman, who was planning to undergo surgical gender reassignment. After Al assured Rusty that gender didn’t matter for drivers, Norma Lee began the transformation via makeup, jewelry, decorated fingernails and use of the women’s restrooms at the various destinations while her truck was being unloaded.

Soon, Anna Graham, the plant manager, heard rumors about a makeup-wearing male employee who used the women’s bathroom. Anne talked to Al about the matter. Al explained that Norma Lee was a transsexual planning for the surgery. Anna expressed concern about which customer bathroom Norma Lee would be using during the day.

The point of my discourse is that cultural norms change slowly.

Al and Anna met with Norma Lee and asked Norma Lee whether she still had male parts. Norma Lee replied in the affirmative and told them that she was saving money to change that last minor detail. Anna insisted that Acme would be liable if one of its male employee was seen using a women’s restroom at a customer’s dock.

Then, Anna placed Norma Lee on leave, ultimately terminating her two weeks later. Anna justified the action because of potential liability arising from restroom choice and that Acme itself couldn’t accommodate Norma Lee’s restroom needs. Norma Lee countered that Acme hasn’t received any complaints from customers regarding her work, appearance and restroom use.

Norma Lee sued Acme, alleging sex discrimination, arguing that she was a biological male entitled to protection against being discriminated against for failing to conform to stereotypes about how a male should act and appear.

A plant engineer says:

What a crazy situation that Acme has found itself in this time and through no fault of its own. The situation could have been avoided if Norma would have understood that he is a male and not a female. The fact that Norma wants to change his gender is his problem, and Acme shouldn’t have to be exposed to any ill will from customers or employees because of Norma’s lack of knowing his gender. Why should Acme be placed in a position to send a man (person with “male parts”) into a ladies restroom? The female employees in Acme’s plant should have the right to expect that when they are in the restroom that only ladies (persons with “female parts”) will be in that room. To expect them to have men in the restroom with them is to put Acme at a great risk in my opinion. Acme shouldn’t have to explain to a customer why its male truck driver was in the ladies restroom in their customer’s facility. Norma wants to be a female, but he should not be allowed in the female restroom until he has no male parts left. I don’t know about a transgender threat, but we have different restrooms for a reason.

Jeffrey L. Strasser, Bacova Guild
(540) 863-2656, strasser.jeff@bacova.com

An academician says:

Acme seems to have more than its share of complicated cases, and I hope it has a good legal staff. This one is definitely a lawyer case. The first question seems to be “when does a male undergoing a gender change become a female?” Is it when he begins counseling or when he begins taking hormone treatments or when the physical, surgical change is made? Not an easy question. It’s further confounded by a second issue, that of societal norms. In this case, when would women see Rusty as an “actual woman” and eligible to use a women’s restroom?

I don’t know much about the legal question, but as to the societal norms, I recall working with a Metro Police Department on the “integration of women” into the force. A couple of decades back, women weren’t eligible to become police officers, and neither were blacks, gays and a few more categories. They could work in the women’s lockup as attendants, but not as regular officers. Once they became legally eligible, the physical requirements were increased so as to exclude most women even though the requirements were irrelevant to the job. Then, the women police officers weren’t allowed to wear pants, and skirts are deadly in northern winters. Then they couldn’t partner with male officers in two-person squads. Then they couldn’t move up in the ranks as “male officers could not be supervised by a female.”

The point of my discourse is that cultural norms change slowly. In the Rusty case, I suspect a better approach would have been to work with Anne and others to figure out how Acme could accommodate Rusty. This would reframe the question and hopefully lead to a better outcome.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D., Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682, hjohnso@luc.edu

Reader responses:

I, as a woman, would not be made uncomforable sharing a restroom with a man legitimately undergoing pre-gender change treatment.  The stalls are private and the only issue I can see would be conversations which aren't normally overheard by a man but Norma Lee isn't really a man, parts not withstanding.

Kay Tessen

Acme could have avoided the expensively legal route by installing single occupant, "gender-free", restrooms.

Francis McGrath

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