It wasn't enough that Hobby Lobby won in a landmark Supreme Courty case for employers being able to deny women reproductive healthcare coverage. Now, the conservative-led company wants to also dictate which restrooms women can use at work. That is, if you happen to be a transgender woman.
Meggan Sommerville, a 16-year veteran of the the arts and crafts franchise, began her transition in 2009 and had her name legally changed in 2010. But she was nevertheless recently written up at her Aurora, Ill., store when she began using the women's restroom. According to Sommerville, store managment said that she'd only be allowed to use the restroom most aligned with her gender identity under one condition: Sommerville would have to prove that she'd undergone a genital reconstructive surgery.
These alleged actions by management reinforce transphobia and cissexism by confusing the difference between sex and gender identity, and the essentialist assumption that all women must have a vagina and vice-versa for men. It also undermines the self-determination and personhood of trans people, by laughing in the face of what they've affirmed to themselves and seek to signal to the world around them about their gender identity.
That's part of the outdated ideology that Sommerville has decided to contest, by filing suit against Hobby Lobby for gender discrimination.
Sommerville also filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Human Rights (IDHR) in April 2011, alleging discrimination in her workplace and public accommodation. Her case was originally dismissed but the decision is now pending after the IDHR overturned it.
Image Credit: Wikimedia
Oddly enough, Hobby Lobby isn’t citing religious reasons to defend prohibiting her from using the women’s restroom. No, this prejudice is right out in the open.
"Since [her transition] they still have denied me use of the women's restroom, even though my state ID [and] even the health benefits of my own company recognize me as female," Sommerville told Newsweek. She also retroactively changed the gender listed on her birth certificate. "I'm just looking to be treated equally with every other female in the company — not just in the store, but in the company. If they recognize me as female for certain things, why can't they recognize me as female for everything?"
Restoom usage has become a common, if not invasive talking point when discussing the transgender community. Most recently, California begame the first trans-inclusive state for restrooms in their public school system, which prompted swift backlash from right-wing conservatives. Such "bathroom panic" is an irrational fear that can be traced to the lack of understanding of various genders, and a belitting public fascination with what trans people have between their legs.
"Hobby Lobby’s taking the fairly absurd position that in order for Megan to be able to use the female facilities, she has to undergo reconstructive surgery," Sommerville’s attorney, Jacob Meister, told Mic. "Expensive and sometimes medically unfeasible, the procedure wasn’t necessary for Sommerville to change her birth certificate." Sommerville’s insurance covers her hormone treatments but it doesn’t extend to the routine doctor’s appointments needed for her transition.
Though Hobby Lobby hasn’t needed proof of Sommerville’s reconstructive surgery to cite her as female in her personal records. She’s even received support from some of her coworkers through her transition, though, not everyone has been as understanding with the pronoun shift from male to female. Hobby Lobby refuses to comment on the pending case, so it's still unclear why they're prohibiting Sommerville from using the women’s restroom.
"I just want to emphasize that I’m not asking for special treatment," Sommerville told Mic. "I’m asking for the same basic right’s that the rest of the other female employees have: To use the restroom at my place of employment."
Image Credit: Sam Killermann
Restrooms have historically not been safe for trans and gender non-conforming people. There are numerous instances of discrimination at public restrooms due to irrational fear of restrooms not being exclusively cisgender spaces. The need for safe places for trans people to use the restroom prompted one trans woman to start a mobile app called Refuge Restrooms. Developed by Teagan Widmer, the app that allows trans people to find restrooms in public places that have been pre-approved by their peers.
This issue won’t be resolved quickly and the need for trans inclusive restrooms is a matter of safety, suppoerters say. "Refuge Restrooms is a web application that indexes and maps safe restrooms for transgender, intersex, and gender-nonconforming individuals." Widmer told The Advocate. "At its core, its goal is to be a place where you can go, type in an address and find the nearest refuge when you really need a place to use the bathroom.”
As for Sommerville's case, it's yet another instance of Hobby Lobby and right-wing conservative companies attempting to take too many steps into the lives of their employees.