Transgender Man Awarded $120,000 in Discrimination Case at Iowa Prison

Jesse Vroegh with his wife, Jackie Vroegh, and their dog.CreditAmerican Civil Liberties Union of Iowa

In 2015, Jesse Vroegh, a registered nurse working in an Iowa prison, asked his employers at the state Department of Corrections to allow him to use the men’s restrooms and locker rooms at work because he was transitioning from female to male.

But the department denied his requests, citing its concerns about the “rights of the male officers” and saying that transgender issues were “too controversial,” according to a lawsuit.

Jurors in Iowa thought differently. On Wednesday, a jury in District Court in Polk County awarded Mr. Vroegh $120,000, for workplace discrimination on the basis of sex and gender identity and for damages related to being denied insurance coverage for gender reassignment surgery, the decision said.

“I was astonished,” Mr. Vroegh, 37, said in an interview on Thursday, taking a break from his new job as a nursing director at a rehabilitation center.

Describing what the verdict meant to him, he said, “It was about being in a country where you have rights and you are free and everybody should be treated equally.”

He added, “It is worth it for anybody who comes up after me, who doesn’t have the voice to stand up to a big state entity.”

Advocates and Mr. Vroegh’s lawyers said the case was the first time that a transgender rights case had been successfully tested in Iowa since legislators amended the state’s Civil Rights Act in 2007 to include gender identity protections.

“It is a really important victory,” said Melissa Hasso, a lawyer who worked with Mr. Vroegh and the American Civil Liberties Union on the case. “It is a cutting edge victory nationally, let alone in Iowa.”

Another lawsuit that also cites the Civil Rights Act is still working its way through the Iowa courts, seeking to allow transgender people covered by Medicaid to have medically necessary transition surgery.

“That is another way of how the Iowa Civil Rights Act has been pulled into a case specifically in the state of Iowa,” Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel, the executive director of One Iowa, an advocacy group for L.G.B.T. rights, said in an interview on Thursday.

“It takes time for culture to catch up to policy,” he said. “The time is now for things to happen.”

A Department of Corrections spokesman, Cord Overton, said on Thursday: “The department is working with the Office of the Attorney General to review the court’s decisions, and we are evaluating our options going forward.”

He did not immediately respond to emailed questions on Thursday about possible changes to policy. The other defendants named in the lawsuit, Patti Wachtendorf, a prison warden, and the Department of Administrative Services, could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Vroegh’s lawsuit described a lifetime of gender identity milestones. Assigned the female gender at birth, he knew he was male since he was 7 years old, the lawsuit said. In the third grade, he started using the name Jessie, which sounded like a “traditionally male name,” it said. Mr. Vroegh said in the interview that he derived the name from the one he was given at birth.

In 2000, he presented as male in the way he dressed and cut his hair, the lawsuit said.

Mr. Vroegh started working for the Correctional Institute for Women, a prison in Mitchellville, Iowa, in 2009 as a registered nurse, which he described in the interview as a fulfilling job. “I loved working with the ladies who I took care of in the prison,” he said.

He also had supportive colleagues, some of whom attended his wedding to his wife, Jackie Vroegh, in 2010, he said.

In 2014, Mr. Vroegh received a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, was given medical treatment and was advised to socially transition to living full-time as a male in “every aspect of his life,” the lawsuit said. He started using hormone therapy, asked others to use male pronouns when speaking to or about him, and started to use public restrooms for men, according to the lawsuit.

That year, Mr. Vroegh also asked his supervisor to consider creating a policy at the prison that would allow him to use the men’s restrooms and locker rooms. He continued those requests without success in 2015.

Instead, he was given access to unisex bathrooms in another building and on a floor separate from the area where he worked, he said. That decision went to the heart of the Iowa Civil Rights Act requirement that employers allow workers to use “restrooms in accordance with their gender identity, rather than their assigned sex at birth.”

Mr. Vroegh said he filed a complaint with the state Civil Rights Commission, contacted One Iowa and was referred to the A.C.L.U. to pursue legal action. In 2016, he legally changed his name to Jesse, and then “involuntarily” left his job at the prison, he said, declining to provide further details.

The award by the jury on Wednesday included $100,000 for damages for sex discrimination and $20,000 for discrimination in equal access to health care benefits. Mr. Vroegh said in the interview that he had sought a mastectomy and chest reconstruction.

He said being denied access to work facilities used by men “basically made me feel like they had put a roadblock in front of me, trying to stop my social transition.”

“It is like wearing a Halloween costume,” he said, “being who you are on the inside and knowing you can’t be who you are on the outside.”

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