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Professor wins back job in historic victory after she was fired for being transgender

Transgender flag being waved in a crowd
Photo: Shutterstock

A federal court has ordered Southeastern Oklahoma State University to reinstate Dr. Rachel Tudor, a professor who was fired in 2011 after an administrator said that her transgender identity is a “lifestyle” that offended his religious beliefs.

The university “wanted people like Dr. Tudor to be afraid, and to go away,” a statement attributed to her said. “Instead of going away, instead of accepting a settlement — conditioned on never teaching in Oklahoma — she fought for the rights and dignity of her Native and LGBT communities.”

Related: Supreme Court hands victory to transgender students by declining to hear critical bathroom case

Tudor, an English professor and a member of the Chickasaw Nation, will also be the first tenured Native American professor in her department in the history of the university.

Tudor started working for Southeastern in 2004 as an assistant professor, when she was presenting as male. She transitioned in 2007, and she said that she received a phone call from an unnamed person who worked for the human resources department.

The woman who called her said that Vice President for Academic Affairs Douglas McMillan was asking around if he could have Tudor fired because her “transgender lifestyle” offended him as a religious person.

McMillan’s sister Jane McMillan, who also worked at the university, talked to Tudor and told her to “take safety precautions.” Jane McMillan said that her brother thought trans people were a “grave offense to his [religious] sensibilities,” according to the lawsuit.

A committee recommended Tudor for tenure in 2009, but she was denied. She said that a similarly qualified cis male candidate has his application approved at that time. She asked why her bid for tenure was rejected, but McMillan and another dean wouldn’t tell her why.

The next year, the university fired her because she had not obtained tenure.

She believed she was denied tenure because of the university’s transphobia, and she filed complaints with the Department of Education (DOE) and Department of Justice (DOJ). The DOJ sued the school in 2015 and Tudor joined the suit, claiming sex discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment.

In 2017, a jury agreed with Tudor and awarded her over one million dollars in damages, years before the Supreme Court would rule that Title VII’s ban on sex-based discrimination includes anti-LGBTQ discrimination. That same year, the DOJ settled its part of the suit separately.

“This is the first one of these Title VII civil rights cases for a trans person based on sex discrimination to go to a jury trial,” said one of her lawyers, Brittany Novotny, after she won her trial in 2017. “It is a pretty exciting day and a pretty big moment.”

The judge reduced that award to $300,000, and Southeastern appealed. This week the appeals court said that Tudor should be given her old job back.

During oral arguments last year, Southeastern’s lawyer Zach West told the three-judge panel that the university shouldn’t be forced to give Tudor her job back because the years of litigation have caused “hostility” between her and the university.

“There is typically litigation hostility because lawyers aren’t saints,” Judge Carolyn McHugh responded. “If we rely on litigation hostility, there is probably never a case where reinstatement can be awarded.”

She called West’s argument about hostility a “red herring.”

“Doesn’t that just reward the discrimination? It takes all of the teeth out of the statute,” she said.

West also said that Tudor hasn’t produced much scholarly work since she was fired, making her unqualified for the position. Judge David Ebel said that Tudor’s “life… was turned upside-down” and that it “is probably not very fair” to expect her to keep up with scholarly work after she was fired.

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