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Lesbian sues over alleged anti-gay job discrimination at Ky. bank

Hudson allegedly was told she was ‘too butch’ for her job

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Penelope Hudson is suing a Kentucky bank for anti-gay job discrimination. (Photo courtesy Freedom for All Americans)

A lesbian worker alleging she faced anti-gay job discrimination at a Kentucky bank that led to her termination — including being told she was “too butch” to deal with customers — sued Friday in state court for compensatory and punitive damages.

Penelope Hudson, who filed the lawsuit, worked at the Louisville-based Park Community Credit Union at various locations in Kentucky and Indiana for 15 years until she was terminated in 2016.

According to her complaint, Hudson was “continually subject to harassment, disparate treatment and hostile work environment due to her status as a gay women,” which was witnessed by other employees and customers at the bank.

In a statement, Hudson said she’s “heartbroken” about her termination, adding she loved her job, was good at it and “loved the members that I dealt with every day.”

“I gave my heart and soul to this company, and then I was fired for no other reason than that I am gay,” Hudson said. “That is hard to believe, and I’m filing this case because I want this company to know that this is not OK. I never want any other LGBT person to be treated the way I was treated.”

Among alleged incidents cited in the complaint is being told her appearance was “too butch,” which required her to change her appearance and clothing for her to keep her job. The complaint says Hudson overheard fellow employees discuss her sexual orientation, she was repeatedly passed over for promotions and she was singled out and reprimanded for actions when straight employees did the same things and weren’t punished.

According to the complaint, Hudson on one occasion was attending an event on behalf of her employer at Churchill Downs Racetrack, where she provided tickets and money under the instructions of ensuring other guests have a time. One guest allegedly proceeded to flirt with Hudson, and even after she politely turned him down, he continued, tried to kiss her and asked for her phone number.

Hudson complained to the vice president of human resources, but that person responded, “well we see if the gay thing doesn’t work out, you can also go the other way,” the complaint says.

When Hudson took time off under the Family & Medical Leave Act for invitro treatments, she was asked what her medical condition was after the time was approved, the complaint says. When she told the person asking her she didn’t think she could be asked for information, the person responded the inquiry to ensure “it wasn’t something related to her being gay,” the complaint says.

According to the complaint, at one time, when she sought an explanation from her supervisor on why she wasn’t promoted, the supervisor responded she, the supervisor, doesn’t hate gay people even though her family thinks that’s the case. But Hudson had never stated her supervisor hated gay people and “there was no reason for that to be discussed unless the plaintiff’s perceived sexual orientation was an issue,” the complaint says.

Another incident cited in the complaint is another supervisor having “made the comment more than one time that the plaintiff doesn’t believe in God because she’s gay.” Although Hudson corrected the supervisor’s presumption, the supervisor continued to make it, the complaint says.

Hudson admits to making mistakes over 15 years, the complaint says, but “similar mistakes were made by others, who were not gay of perceived to be gay and they were not terminated for those mistakes.” Hudson was terminated Sept. 29, 2016.

Although Kentucky is among the more than 30 states without explicit protections based on sexual orientation or transgender status, Hudson’s lawsuit seeks restitution under a city ordinance barring anti-gay discrimination as well as state law and Title VII of the Civil Rights of Act. The latter two laws bar discrimination on the basis of sex, and courts have increasingly interpreted sexual-orientation to be a form of sex discrimination.

Representing Hudson in court is Shannon Fauver of the Louisville-based firm Fauver Law Office, who was one of the attorneys representing same-sex couples in the cases that won marriage equality in Kentucky and nationwide.

“What happened to Penelope is wrong – and there is a growing consensus in federal courts, including the full 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, that this kind of employment discrimination based on sexual orientation is clearly illegal under existing law,” Fauver said. “We’ll keep standing up in the court of law, because no hardworking person should face unfair treatment because of who they are.”

The lawsuit seeks a judgment in Hudson’s favor against the bank for compensatory and punitive damages, reasonable costs and attorney fees and “any and all other relief to which she may be entitled.”

The Washington Blade has placed a request seeking comment on the lawsuit in with BoxcarPR, the public relations representing Park Community Credit Union.

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Federal Government

Department of Education to investigate Nex Benedict’s Okla. school district

Nonbinary student died last month after students assaulted them

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Nex Benedict (Family photo)

On Friday the U.S. Department of Education informed Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson that the department will open an investigation in response to HRC’s letter regarding Owasso Public Schools and its failure to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment that may have contributed to the death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary teenager of Choctaw heritage. 

This investigation was triggered by a formal complaint made last week by Robinson, who wrote to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and asked his department to use the enforcement mechanisms at its disposal to prevent similar tragedies from taking place in the future and to help hold accountable those responsible for Benedict’s death.

The letter from the Department of Education reads: “the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR), is opening for investigation the above-referenced complaint that you filed against the Owasso Public Schools (the District.) Your complaint alleges that the District discriminated against students by failing to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment, of which it had notice, at Owasso High School during the 2023-2024 school year,” said Robinson.

“Nex’s family, community and the broader 2SLGBTQI+ (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex+) community in Oklahoma are still awaiting answers following their tragic loss. We appreciate the Department of Education responding to our complaint and opening an investigation — we need them to act urgently so there can be justice for Nex, and so that all students at Owasso High School and every school in Oklahoma can be safe from bullying, harassment and discrimination,” Robinson added.

According to the letter, OCR is opening the following issues for investigation:

  • Whether the District failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment of students in a manner consistent with the requirements of Title IX.
  • Whether the District failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment of students in a manner consistent with the requirements of Section 504 and Title II.

HRC sent a second letter to the Department asking it to promptly begin an investigation into the Oklahoma State Department of Education, as well as the current State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Ryan Walters. In addition:

  • Robinson wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the Department of Justice to begin an investigation into Nex’s death.
  • Robinson wrote to Dr. Margaret Coates, superintendent of the Owasso School District in Oklahoma, calling for the superintendent to take advantage of HRC’s Welcoming Schools program — the most comprehensive bias-based bullying prevention program in the nation to provide LGBTQ and gender inclusive training and resources — and offering to bring experts to the district immediately.

The full text of the letter from the Department of Education in response to HRC can be found here.

The full text of the initial letter from Robinson to Cardona can be found here.

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District of Columbia

Judy and Dennis Shepard discuss Nex Benedict, anti-LGBTQ laws at DC event

Nonbinary Okla. high school student died last month after fight

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Dennis and Judy Shephard speak at the Raben Group’s D.C. offices on Feb. 29, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Amber Laenen)

Judy and Dennis Shepard on Thursday reflected on Nex Benedict’s death and the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ laws across the country during a discussion the Raben Group hosted at their D.C. office.

The discussion, which MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart moderated, took place less than a month after Benedict died.

Benedict, who was nonbinary, passed away on Feb. 8 after students at their high school in Owasso, Okla., assaulted them in a bathroom. 

Vice President Kamala Harris, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt are among those who have publicly responded to Benedict’s death, which took place after they endured months of bullying. More than 300 advocacy groups have demanded Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters’ removal and called for a federal investigation into the Oklahoma Department of Education’s “actions and policies” that have facilitated a “culture where rampant harassment of 2SLGBTQI+ students has been allowed to go unchecked.”

“Parents are doing whatever they can to protect and encourage and support kids, and you have these what I call evil, evil people around the country pushing these laws,” said Dennis Shepard.

He noted lawmakers around the country are pushing anti-LGBTQ laws and other efforts that include the elimination of diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Dennis Shepard also highlighted an effort to defund gender studies programs at the University of Wyoming.

“[It is] the old white male, Christian geezers who want to go back to the days of the 50s when they had that superior arrogant attitude,” he said. “They’re losing it and they don’t want to, so they’re passing everything they can.”

“What happened to Nex is a result of that,” added Dennis Shepard. “They feel like Henderson and McKinney felt when they took Matt out on the prairie.”

Matthew Shepard died on Oct. 12, 1998, after Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney brutally beat him and left him tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo. Then-President Barack Obama in 2009 signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which added sexual orientation and gender identity to the federal hate crimes law.

“If you’re considered different, you’re in fear of your life right now because you don’t fit in and it’s got to stop,” said Dennis Shepard.

Judy Shepard echoed her husband, noting this moment is “the last gasp of the fight against the community.” 

“In my heart, I know this is a moment in time, and it’s going to pass. But also in that time, all these young people, everyone in the community is afraid, but young people are being terrorized,” she said. “It just shouldn’t be happening.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

N.Y. AG joins multi-state brief in Colo. anti-trans discrimination case

Letitia James and 18 other attorneys general support plaintiff

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trans health care, gay news, Washington Blade
New York Attorney General Letitia James (Photo public domain)

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday joined a brief by 18 other Democratic state attorneys general urging the Colorado Supreme Court to uphold a lower court ruling against Masterpiece Cakeshop for anti-trans discrimination.

A customer, Autumn Scardina, sued the business over claims that it refused to provide her a cake upon learning that it was for a celebration of her transition. The case is not the first in which owner Jack Smith has faced claims of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

In 2012, Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to fulfill an order for a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, which led to the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission — and a narrow ruling that did not address core legal questions weighing the constitutionality of First Amendment claims vis-a-vis the government’s enforcement of LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination laws.

“Denying service to someone simply because of who they are is illegal discrimination, plain and simple,” James said in a press release. “Allowing this kind of behavior would undermine our nation’s fundamental values of freedom and equality and set a dangerous precedent.”

She added, “I am proud to stand with my fellow attorneys general against this blatant transphobic discrimination.”

The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Scardina, noting that Smith objected to fulfilling her cake order only after learning about her intended use for it “and that Phillips did not believe the cake itself expressed any inherent message.”

The fact pattern in both cases against Masterpiece Cakeshop resembles that of another case that originated in Colorado and was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court last year, 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis.

This time, the justices did not sidestep the question of whether the state’s anti-discrimination law can be enforced against a business owner, Lorie Smith, a website designer who claimed religious protections for her refusal to provide services to a same-sex couple for their nuptials.

The court’s conservative supermajority ruled in favor of Smith, which was widely seen as a blow to LGBTQ rights.

Joining James in her brief are the attorneys general of Connecticut, Delaware, Hawai’i, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and D.C.

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