In this our last issue of 2011, the GA Voice names our second annual Person of the Year — an honor that goes to the LGBT person, or ally, we think has had the most significant effect on LGBT rights in Georgia in the last 12 months.
This year, our choice is Vandy Beth Glenn, who had the courage to make her personal struggle with Gender Identity Disorder into a very public lawsuit when she was fired from her job as an editor at the Georgia General Assembly in 2007.
This month, she won her job back and an historic victory from a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The state of Georgia could still appeal, but with Glenn back at work and the sky not falling, we hope our government will stop wasting our tax dollars to deny a job to someone who wants to work. Glenn will tell you that she wasn’t brave, but we disagree.
It takes fortitude to stand up to the public scrutiny of a landmark lawsuit, including the ridiculous spectacle of your former boss admitting in court documents that he was uncomfortable thinking about the genitalia under your clothes — as if bosses are supposed to think about employees’ parts, regardless of their gender identity.
When Glenn was previously honored by the Human Rights Campaign, critics from within the transgender community pointed out that she had not been an activist with local trans organizations.
But without downplaying the importance of grassroots activism, we note that Glenn’s personal bravery in pursuing her lawsuit sets a precedent that will benefit all transgender people — those who are activists, those who wish to assimilate, and everyone in between.
The court’s clear statement that discrimination based on gender nonconformity constitutes illegal sex discrimination could also help lesbians and gay men — and anyone else — who might be perceived as too butch or too femme.
The courts ruled the state violated the Equal Protection Clause, a part of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In this case, the courts ruled Glenn was fired due to sex discrimination because she didn’t fit the gender norms that Brumby believed she should have.
While grateful to be back at work and happy with the ruling, Glenn acknowledges her historic victory did not come without a heavy cost.
Glenn said she spent her entire savings, a small inheritance she received when her grandfather died in 2007, the 401(k) she had from a previous job and has two mortgages on her house.
“This process has cost me a lot financially. I am not made whole by the court’s decision even though I got my job back,” she said.
Glenn did not receive a financial settlement or back pay with her court victory. But she hopes her victory can be used in future discrimination cases as ammunition for plaintiffs to receive financial settlements.
She never thought of quitting, though.
“I’m too pugnacious for that. I didn’t want to give my opponents, my adversaries, the satisfaction of having beaten me,” Glenn said. “Even if we ultimately lost the case, I wanted the comfortable to feel a little afflicted. I wanted them to have a few restless nights at the very least.”
‘Willing to be a public face’
Greg Nevins, the Lambda Legal attorney in Atlanta who represented Glenn in court, said Glenn’s decision to continue fighting is a testament to her strength of character.
“The amount of courage it took for her to keep going — this was a fairly challenging thing to undertake … and Vandy Beth has rightfully been praised in all corners,” he said.
This case, said Nevins, is part of Lambda Legal’s work to build a national consensus that this kind of discrimination against a transgender person is sex discrimination. Other circuits have ruled similarly in transgender discrimination cases, but winning in the conservative 11th Circuit Court will hopefully “signal the end” of this kind of employee bias, he said.
“This case has implications on both a local and national perspective,” Nevins said.
While Glenn’s case is historic in signaling to employers that it is wrong to fire someone for being who they are, the case itself does not lay out protections for sexual orientation, said Charles Shanor, Emory law professor and former general counsel to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Shanor said he was so interested in Glenn’s case that he used it to craft a question on a law exam a couple years ago, but made it a “harder case” for students.
“The ruling is significant but fairly straightforward,” Shanor said. “What I view as an oddity is the transgender person perceived as doing what is inappropriate to their gender winds up getting protected … but if the person is gay or lesbian, he or she doesn’t get those protections.”
That’s why Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, hopes voters in the state will call their lawmakers to ask them to support HB 630, the Georgia Fair Employment Practices Bill, introduced late in the 2011 session by state Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates).
“This law is the best way for the legislature to not face another costly lawsuit that they will lose,” he said.
Cole Thaler, formerly of Lambda Legal, said Glenn’s persistence in fighting Brumby was a true form of activism.
“Being a plaintiff in a Lambda Legal suit is different than being a plaintiff in a regular lawsuit. There is an education component that is integral to the mission,” Thaler said.
“Vandy Beth was not only willing to be a public face and really stepped into the role and thrived in it,” he said.
This included her testifying before a congressional panel in 2009 on the need for a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
“To have the endurance and to be as constant in terms of her perspective and commitment to the case is pretty remarkable,” Thaler said of Glenn. “She said in one of our very first conversations that this was about fairness and she never strayed from that.”
‘I wanted to be close to the girls… and be one of them’
Glenn said her story is not unlike other transgender people. When she hit puberty she had feelings for girls, but also a different feeling of also wanting to be a girl.
“I’m looking at girls and I am attracted to them and I’m also feeling something else that the boys around me are not feeling. I want to be close to the girls and I want to be one of them myself,” she said. “It’s a very confusing and a very frightening feeling to have. That’s why it takes so long to come to terms with it.”
Glenn majored in journalism at the University of Georgia and worked for the Red & Black, the independent college newspaper. When she graduated, she joined the Navy and began working in IT because she was good with computers. In the mid-1990s, she was stationed in Hawaii where she learned of a thriving transgender community in Honolulu. It was there where she presented as a female for the first time.
But when a co-worker almost caught her wearing toenail polish and her girlfriend was reluctant about the idea of Glenn being a woman, Glenn said she went back into the closet and tried, again, to shut down that side of herself forever.
Glenn said the main reason she didn’t want to believe she was transgender, or a transsexual, was because she thought she would live the rest of her life alone if she embraced fully who she is.
But a few years ago, after driving home after another breakup with a girlfriend, Glenn said she thought it was looking like she was going to be alone anyway. So, despite the fears and the risks, in 2005 she began the process of transitioning.
She now has a girlfriend, who she credits with helping her get through many difficult years during her legal battle. She said she never claimed to be an activist but she knew what happened to her was wrong and shouldn’t happen to anyone else.
“It’s wrong to discriminate against people especially for things they don’t have control over,” Glenn said.
Top photo: Vandy Beth Glenn is back at work as a legislative editor at the General Assembly after a historic win in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals this month. (by Dyana Bagby)