Transgender Nurse Fights for Equal Rights
Jesse Vroegh, a former prison nurse, has filed a lawsuit in Polk County District Court under the Iowa Civil Rights Act and the Iowa Constitution’s equal protection clause alleging discrimination by the Iowa’s Department of Corrections (DOC). Vroegh is transgender and claimed he was denied equal access to men’s facilities, including a restroom and locker room. The prison nurse also was unable to receive health care coverage or a “medically necessary surgery”. Vroegh was forced to use a unisex, private restroom, which kept him separated from colleagues and did not provide him with shower access.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa filed the lawsuit on Vroegh’s behalf. The client had originally filed a lawsuit with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission in July of last year. However, he received a response that it was “too controversial” to him to use male restrooms, and asked to file instead with the Civil Rights Commission.
At the time, Teresa Roof, senior public relations consultant for Wellmark, said the medical procedures Vroegh requested “are not considered a covered benefit in the state of Iowa plan,” adding Iowa’s plan is “self-funded,” which means “Wellmark administers the plan on behalf of the state of Iowa.” Roof said, “In this case, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield applied the benefits per the plan.”
Fred Scaletta, the department of corrections spokesperson said that “the department strongly focuses to protect and treat with respect the public, staff and offenders.”
However, the ACLU saw things differently. “We alleged (those) two instances of unlawful discrimination (violated) both the (Iowa) Civil Rights Act protection against discrimination on the basis of gender identity as well as the Iowa Constitution because the state as an employer is acting as the government denying equal protection to our client, Jesse, because he is transgender,” said Rita Bettis, legal director of the ACLU of Iowa. “It is disheartening that we are seeing a failure of leadership at the national level as well as here in Iowa, where our state law makes very clear that this type of discrimination is illegal and has been for a long time.” Cooperating attorney, Melissa Hasso added, “We would very much like to see the State take a leadership role in eliminating workplace discrimination rather than excusing it.”
Vroegh is seeking damages for emotional distress and injunctive relief to prevent further discrimination. “I’m doing it because I feel I need to fight for the rights not only of transgender people who work for the state but for other Iowa workers as well,” Vroegh said. “I’m not asking for any special treatment of myself or any other transgender person. All I’m asking for is that transgender people be treated the same way as people who are not transgender.”
In February, President Donald Trump revoked the previous administration’s guidelines requiring federally funded schools to treat gender identity as a student’s sex, and last month, Trump ordered the Secretaries of the Department of Defense to continue banning transgender individuals from serving in the military. As the rights of transgender individuals continue to fluctuate, the ACLU is picking up cases on their behalf.