The warden of the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women where trans man Jesse Vroegh has been a staff nurse for seven years turned down his request to use the men’s bathrooms and showers, stating that permitting him to use the facilities appropriate to his gender would be “too controversial,” according to the Des Moines Register.
In one instance, reported by Gay Star News, Vrogeh was covered in pepper spray following a training session at the prison in Mitchellville, but the warden’s rule prevented him from cleaning off.
These incidents and others are why Vrogeh has put the state of Iowa on notice that he intends to sue, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The 34-year-old says he’s only permitted 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.
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. But in April the warden responded with the “too controversial” remark.
“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.”
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.