When Tristan Broussard was hired at Tower Loan at $15 an hour in March 2013, he drove to Houston to buy a new suit. He told his girlfriend she could quit her job, if she wanted to, and take care of their pets at home.
But a week after he started at the financial chain's Lake Charles, Louisiana, location, Broussard was fired, according to a lawsuit filed Monday. Broussard claims that he was terminated after the company's vice president told him he would have to follow the female dress code.
Broussard had previously explained to his direct manager that he was transgender, after she asked him why his driver's license listed his sex as female. She told Broussard that he wouldn't be judged and had nothing to worry about, Broussard said. But just days later, Broussard claims he found himself in a meeting with the company's vice president, David Morgan, being told that the corporate office had to "draw a line," and that Broussard would have to sign an agreement that his gender identity wasn't "in compliance with Tower Loan's personnel policies" or leave the company.
"I told him, 'I can't,'" Broussard said. "'I'm going to have to turn in my keys.'"
On Monday, the Southern Poverty Law Center and National Center for Lesbian Rights filed a lawsuit on Broussard's behalf, along with a San Francisco-based law firm and a New Orleans-based firm. The complaint cites Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, and which, since 2012, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has interpreted to apply to anti-transgender discrimination. In the past year, both the EEOC and Justice Department have filed lawsuits against businesses or governmental entitities alleging Title VII violations based on anti-transgender discrimination.
"It takes one person at a time to step up and say this isn't right," Broussard, now 21, said in an interview with BuzzFeed News Monday morning. "It doesn't matter how you're dressed and presenting yourself — that has nothing to do with your work."
According to the lawsuit, after Broussard declined to sign the agreement, Morgan told him that if "he 'had some surgeries and we can see some results,' then Tower Loan may consider hiring him again."
Broussard told BuzzFeed News he got "emotional" when Morgan presented the dress code to him. It took him back to his senior year of high school, when he was told he had to wear a white dress for his Catholic confirmation. (Broussard also recounted the story in a video the SPLC released on Monday.) By then Broussard had come out as gay in his small town, but could not begin his transition until he was 18, when he would no longer need parental consent for hormone therapy. But Broussard said he had never faced discrimination in the workplace until Tower Loan; he left the job he held before Tower Loan only because there were no opportunities for a promotion.
After he was fired, Broussard was unemployed for a month, he said, then took the first job he could get: delivery driver for Papa John's Pizza, where he stayed for six months. "It was a rough time," he said.
Later that year — August 2013 — the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Broussard's New Orleans-based law firm filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. More than a year later, the EEOC determined that Broussard had been "subjected to discrimination." The commission invited both Broussard and Tower Loan to find a resolution but in January 2015 informed Broussard's attorneys that it wasn't able to reach a settlement. The EEOC declined to sue, though, prompting Broussard to file his own lawsuit. Broussard is seeking a declaratory judgment from a federal court that Tower Loan broke the law, as well as back pay and compensation for legal fees.
"We have a young man who is finally able to get a job — a job that held so much promise for him to have financial security — and the employer turns around and fires him," said Sam Wolfe, a staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center. "And we know this type of discrimination is terribly widespread."
"Hopefully," Broussard added, "we can figure out the law and stop things like this from happening."