Transgender Iowa prison nurse files complaint over restrooms

Jesse Vroegh, left, is suing over his employer's failure to provide equal access to restrooms and locker rooms.

Jesse Vroegh, left, is suing over his employer's failure to provide equal access to restrooms and locker rooms. ACLU of Iowa

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A transgender prison worker filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission on Thursday saying state Department of Corrections officials violated his constitutional rights by refusing to allow him to use the men’s bathroom and showers at work.

Jesse Vroegh has worked for the state since 2009 and is a nurse at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville. The 34-year-old says he’s been required to use a unisex private restroom that doesn’t have a shower, preventing him from showering at work if needed, a benefit others have. He also is challenging denial of medical treatment and procedures including chest surgery by his state-provided insurer.

In his complaint, Vroegh alleges violations of state law and his Iowa constitutional rights. Filing a civil rights complaint is the first step to challenging civil rights violations in court. After 60 days Vroegh may file a lawsuit.

The Iowa Department of Corrections declined to comment on the complaint because it is still pending.

“As a very important part the Department of Corrections mission, the department strongly focuses to protect and treat with respect the public, staff and offenders,” spokesman Fred Scaletta said.

In denying Vroegh’s request last year to use the men’s restrooms and showers, corrections officials told him it was because of concerns for the male officers at the prison, according to the complaint.

Vroegh said he’s known since age 7 that he was a male and started using a male name in the third grade. Since 2000, he has dressed and cut his hair as a male. He was diagnosed in March 2014 with gender dysphoria, a medical diagnosis for the discomfort and distress that results from a mismatch between a person’s biological sex and gender identity. He experiences depression and anxiety and is receiving medical treatment including hormone therapy. He said his doctor has advised him to socially transition to living full time as a male. As a result, he notified his supervisors and asked them to develop policies relating to use of restroom and locker rooms for transgender employees.

Vroegh said his supervisor notified him in April that officials would not be drafting such a policy.

“All I want is for my employer to treat me like my co-workers by allowing me to use the work restrooms and locker rooms that match my gender and by offering me insurance for medical care I need,” he said. “I don’t want different treatment. I just want the same treatment and facilities as every other employee.”

He filed the complaint with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, the ACLU LGBT Project and West Des Moines lawyer Melissa Hasso.

Rita Bettis, ACLU of Iowa legal director, said the state should be setting an example by creating a work environment that is free from discrimination on the basis of gender identity instead of allowing an agency to violate a protection written its own civil rights law.

Iowa is one of 18 states with gender identity protection in civil rights laws, Bettis said. She said more than 200 cities nationwide offer similar protection.

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