Johnson County settles with transgender woman over restroom complaint

County supervisors to vote on a resolution next week clarifying county policy on gender identity and public restrooms

A transgender woman and Johnson County have reached an agreement over her civil rights complaint after a sheriff's deputy removed her from a women's restroom in the county courthouse.

The settlement, finalized Wednesday, requires the county to pay the complainant $7,000 and pass a resolution stating public restrooms in county buildings are open to people based on their gender identity regardless of the person’s gender at birth. Sheriff’s Office staff also will undergo training.

Jodie J. Jones, 56, of Iowa City, filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission after Johnson County sheriff’s deputy Sue Henderson made her leave a women’s bathroom in the county courthouse in November 2011.

After investigating, the commission determined there was probable cause to believe Henderson violated a section of Iowa law that prohibits denying someone public accommodations – in this case, a bathroom – based on gender identity.

Johnson County has a human rights ordinance with similar protections.

Equal access to public restrooms for transgender people is a national issue that needs greater public awareness, said Dru Levasseur, an attorney and Transgender Rights Project director for Lambda Legal, a gay-rights organization based in New York City.

About 12 percent of the 7,000 calls Lambda Legal receives each year concern transgender issues, and many of those deal with bathrooms, he said. Violence and harassment are very real concerns for transgender people, he said, and confrontations in bathrooms can lead to unsafe situations.

“That is definitely a very important topic that we are working on,” Levasseur said.

Johnson County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Janelle Rettig said Henderson, who has since retired, was a good employee who had to make a quick decision after being told a man was in the women’s restroom. She said Henderson chose wrong, but not with any intent to discriminate.

“It wasn’t that this individual was treated poorly. It’s just that she was asked to leave the restroom,” said Rettig, a lesbian who pushed for gender identity to be included in state and local anti-discrimination laws.

Henderson could not be reached for comment Thursday. Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek shared Rettig’s view, saying it was a difficult situation for all involved but acknowledging Henderson made a mistake.

“Sue had no ill intent,” he said. “Sue was a solid, good employee.”

Jones, however, said she told Henderson she had a legal right to use the women’s bathroom and Henderson said that didn’t matter. Jones said if not for that attitude, she probably would not have filed a complaint.

“I understand it (being transgender) confuses people,” she said. “But when I tell an officer of the law what the law says, and they say ‘I don’t care,’ that’s what got me upset.”

Administrative Law Judge Heather Palmer, in a March ruling that found there was probable cause to support the allegations of discrimination, said Henderson had seen Jones in women’s clothes more than once and “had sufficient information to conclude Jones was a transgendered woman.”

Jones said she began presenting herself as a woman 100 percent of the time in spring 2011 and was wearing a blond wig and woman’s clothes at the courthouse that day.

Jones and her attorney, Jean Pendleton of West Des Moines, said they were pleased with the settlement, particularly the policies and training.

“And so all in all, it’s just wonderful for society, very progressive for the county, very healing for Jodie,” Pendleton said.

The county supervisors will vote on a resolution next week clarifying county policy on gender identity and public restrooms.

The civil rights agreement requires the Sheriff’s Office to adopt a similar policy that also says no one using a public restroom can be forced to verify their gender. Deputies must undergo training on the issue. The Sheriff’s Office is to make that training available at an annual countywide law enforcement seminar so that officers in area towns receive it.

Pulkrabek said the training hopefully will prevent something like this from happening again.

“No matter how much training we go through, humans make mistakes,” he said. “Ideally we learn from mistakes.”

Rettig said she is fully supportive of training. She also said the $7,000 payment to Jones is cheaper than what it would have cost to go to court, as Jones threatened.

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