The ACLU of Iowa has filed what is believed to be the first transgender rights lawsuit in Iowa since the state amended the Iowa Civil Rights Act in 2007 to include gender identity protections.
Jesse Vroegh, a transgender nurse, worked at Iowa’s Department of Corrections for seven years. After he publicly transitioned to male, Vroegh says he was barred from using the men’s bathroom and locker room, and denied medical coverage for surgery.
"All sorts of psychological and physical discomfort go along with not getting medically necessary care," says ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis. "The harms from not being allowed to use the same facilities that other men who work at the prison are able to use really can’t be understated. It’s stigmatizing, it’s isolating."
The lawsuit's defendants are the Iowa Department of Corrections, Patti Wachtendorf, the former warden at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women, the Iowa Department of Administrative Services and Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Iowa, which provides health insurance to DOC employees.
"What we’d really like to see is the state of Iowa take a leadership role in enforcing the provisions of the Iowa Civil Rights Act, instead of pushing back on those rights the legislator has given to Iowans," says Des Moines employment discrimination attorney Melissa Hasso, who is working with the ACLU to represent Vroegh.
In an emailed statement, DOC spokeswoman Lettie Prell says, "The department can't comment on pending litigation." Prell also declined to comment on behalf of Wachtendorf, who is now warden of the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison.
DAS spokeswoman Tami Wiencek also declined to comment, "The Iowa Department of Administrative Services cannot comment on pending litigation and has not yet seen the lawsuit."
Wellmark spokeswoman Teresa Roof says in an emailed statement, "The State of Iowa sponsors and designs its own employee health benefit plan and Wellmark administered the plan accordingly. Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield has not seen the lawsuit, and it would not be appropriate to comment at this time.”
The ACLU says the first transgender employment discrimination case in Iowa was Sommers v. Iowa Civil Rights Commission, which was decided in 1983.
Audra Sommers lost her case, in which she argued that she was fired because she was transgender. The State Supreme Court ruled that the Iowa civil Rights Commission does not protect a person from discrimination based on gender, only sex.