Health

St. Luke's counselor says in complaint he and trans patients harassed by staff

Hospital: Policies reflect diversity and staff is trained annually

Asher Brown, a youth counselor at St. Luke's, has filed a state civil rights complaint alleging he was discriminated aga
Asher Brown, a youth counselor at St. Luke’s, has filed a state civil rights complaint alleging he was discriminated against because he is transgender. Photographed at Prairie Park Fishery in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Asher Brown sought a job as a mental health counselor for teens, hoping his experiences as a transgender adult would help him guide trans youth going through similar challenges.

But when he started working in the UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital inpatient psychiatric unit for adolescents in Cedar Rapids, Brown found co-workers didn’t understand or respect gender non-conformity and made fun of trans patients, he reported in a Dec. 11 complaint to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

“Where it should be a safe place where they can heal, they are met with the same ridicule that got them there in the first place,” Brown, 29, of Cedar Rapids, told The Gazette.

Brown’s colleagues also harassed him about his gender identity, asking whether he had male genitalia and which gender he found attractive, the complaint states. Co-workers made fun of Brown’s online dating profile and “outed” him as trans when someone found a GoFundMe page for his previous gender confirmation surgery.

When Brown complained, his supervisor was sympathetic but did not seem to take action and nothing changed, he said.

“A lot of the response I would get from her would be, ‘It would be helpful if you educate that person,’” Brown said. “That’s not really my job to educate people to not be transphobic.”

UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s did not respond directly to the allegations in the complaint, but did provide a statement to The Gazette.

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“We respect and recognize all patients and employees regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, religion, disability and gender identity,” spokeswoman Sarah Corizzo said. “Our team members participate in annual diversity training and all of our policies supporting equity and diversity are included in hospital policies, which are shared with employees.”

The Civil Rights Commission investigates and resolves complaints of discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodation, education and credit. The agency doesn’t acknowledge a complaint unless it proceeds to a public hearing after a determination of probable cause.

Mental health risks

Transgender people are nearly four times as likely to experience a mental health condition as people whose gender identity corresponds with their birth sex, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Transgender youth are twice as likely to experience depression, seriously consider suicide and attempt suicide compared with LGBTQ youth whose gender identity corresponds with their birth sex, NAMI reported.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated some of these problems because trans youth without supportive families can’t spend as much time with friends or other supporters.

When Brown started working at St. Luke’s in February 2019, he said he was shocked to hear staff dismiss teens’ gender identity, rolling their eyes when describing trans kids and calling them “he/she/whatever.” Staff also made teens to sit at tables according to their sex assigned at birth, Brown said.

“That was awful,” he said. “You’re basically asking these kids to stand up and say, ‘Here’s what’s in my pants’ before I even sit down and eat lunch with them.”

When Brown allowed a trans male to sit with other boys, another counselor yelled at Brown, the complaint states.

While Brown hoped his life experiences would help him counsel trans teens, he didn’t think his gender identity was any of his colleagues’ business. But they felt differently, sending group Snapchats about his body parts and showing him pictures from a LGBTQ dating website, he wrote in the complaint.

Treatment prompts transfer

Things got so bad, Brown said, that he transferred to another floor in August. When he told his supervisor and a human resources representative he was leaving the unit, one replied:

“It saddens me that you are looking for other work, but honestly I understand,” the unnamed supervisor wrote in an email included with the complaint. “I would love for you to stay working here and I hope that we can continue to work towards a healthy and accepting environment for everyone.”

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Brown, who still works at St. Luke’s, would like to see the hospital discipline harassers and provide effective training for employees.

“People should know about this,” he said. “Previous patients who had experiences here deserve to have that validated.”

For LGBTQ teens thinking about suicide or needing immediate support, the Trevor Project has a phone hotline at 1-866-488-7386 or an online chat feature. The NAMI Helpline also can be reached 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Iowa time Monday through Friday at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or info@nami.org.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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