Government

Transgender prison nurse files discrimination complaint against Iowa Department of Corrections

Jesse Vroegh says Mitchellville prison wouldn't let him use men's restroom and state won't pay for breast removal

Jesse Vroegh, left, pictured with his wife, Jackie, filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission July 18, 201
Jesse Vroegh, left, pictured with his wife, Jackie, filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission July 18, 2016. He alleges the Iowa Department of Corrections discriminated against him because he is transgender. (Submitted photo)

A transgender nurse at the state women’s prison in Mitchellville has filed a civil rights complaint against the Iowa Department of Corrections alleging the agency won’t let him use the men’s restroom and locker room.

Jesse Vroegh, 34, who has worked for the Corrections Department since 2009, also asserts in the complaint filed with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission that the state violated his rights by not providing insurance that covers breast removal surgery.

Vroegh, accompanied by his wife, Jackie, spoke to reporters at a news conference Thursday in Des Moines. He described telling his supervisors at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in March 2014 he was transitioning to living as a man at work.

“I requested that my employer establish policies related to issues affecting transgender employees but nothing happened,” Vroegh said. “I asked to be able to use the men’s restrooms and locker rooms like my male co-workers, but instead I was forced to use a separate facility from everyone else and denied the use of a shower entirely.”

Vroegh said he was diagnosed in March 2014 with gender dysphoria. The condition in which a person identifies as a gender other than his or her biological sex made Vroegh anxious and depressed, he said.

His doctor recommended breast removal surgery, but Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield denied coverage because the state does not insure its employees for gender reassignment surgery.

“Insurance would cover it if he were born male and had gynecomastia or was female and wanted a breast reduction,” said Veronica Fowler, spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which filed the complaint along with Vroegh.

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There are other medical expenses that would be covered for other state employees that Vroegh has to pay out of pocket because they are related to gender dysphoria, the complaint states.

Because Vroegh can’t use the shower in the men’s locker room and the unisex restroom he was instructed to use doesn’t have a shower, he wasn’t able to shower after an April 7 training exercise in which staff were sprayed with pepper spray, according to the complaint.

“As a result, I had to seek medical treatment for painful headaches, which continued for approximately seven days after the training,” Vroegh wrote.

AFSCME Iowa Council 61 President Danny Homan said in a statement the union supports Vroegh.

“DOC was informed in 2014 of Jesse’s transition at work, so they have had more than enough time to become an inclusive workplace,” Homan said.

In a statement, the LGBT organization One Iowa called on the Corrections Department to make changes.

The Corrections Department said it could not comment on Vroegh’s allegations because of the pending civil rights complaint.

“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,” according to a DOC statement.

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