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Transphobic dress code caused unrest within Agriculture Department, emails show

Transphobic dress code caused unrest within Agriculture Department, emails show
Transphobic dress code caused unrest within Agriculture Department, emails show


For more than a year, Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) employees have been subject to a transphobic and potentially illegal dress code. The policy has caused unrest within the agency, emails obtained by the Texas Observer and the interviews reveal this, while contributing to a frightening atmosphere for LGBTQ+ workers.

Last April, the Observer announced that the TDA had implemented a new dress code that required employees to dress “in a manner consistent with their biological sex,” an apparent attempt to restrict how transgender and non-binary employees express themselves . Sid Miller, the Texas agriculture commissioner, has defended the policy in media appearances and on social media. Since then, American Oversight, a nonprofit organization, has obtained an email cache regarding the policy through a public information request and provided these emails to the Observer. The emails show that senior management at the agency was aware that TDA was treading into legally questionable waters and that a number of employees opposed its implementation and felt personally discriminated against.

Austin Kaplan, an employment lawyer in Austin, told the Observer he was “surprised” that no one had yet sued TDA over this policy. “This certainly seems like an issue that could give rise to litigation, as it constitutes on its face discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation or transgender status.”

In a landmark 2020 Supreme Court decision, Bostock v. Clayton County, The justices ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from discrimination based on their sex or sexual identity. In the emails, whether this decision applies to the proposed dress code is discussed by senior TDA staff.

“I don’t feel the same level of security as I did in my previous jobs in the state.

On April 18, 2023, TDA policy analyst Carter Page shared a chart comparing interpretations of the law under the Obama and Trump administrations, commenting: “This chart below provides a very good summary of the volatility of these issues controversial political and legal issues. has remained over the past decade. This email was intended for several recipients, including TDA General Counsel Tim Kleinschmidt and Terry Keel, Deputy Commissioner of Agriculture for Law Enforcement, Consumer Protection and Safety borders. On April 24, 2023, Page shared the news of Ken Paxton supporting a lawsuit against transgender athletes led by Tennessee, including Paxton's legal arguments regarding both Title VII and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act. The email was sent to Miller and other top TDA officials.

“The records we received demonstrate that senior TDA officials were fully aware of the potentially illegal nature of their policies,” said Chioma Chukwu, interim executive director of American Oversight, a nonprofit organization that aims to use the Public Records Act to fight corruption. “[TDA officials] were taking precautions to try to defend something that would otherwise be indefensible in light of Title VII.

According to Kaplan, “The Supreme Court has made it clear that LGBTQ+ rights are protected under federal law and that employers are not allowed to discriminate. Conservative politicians may not like this, nor will conservative elected agency leaders, but they don't really have a choice.

Although the Supreme Court has not ruled specifically on dress codes for transgender employees, Kaplan noted that courts have begun to issue important rulings based on Boston. For example, in March, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a transgender prison guard who filed a lawsuit after being repeatedly harassed about his gender identity by co-workers.

TDA did not respond to multiple requests for comment on its dress code or other matters revealed in the emails.

The emails also show that some employees rebelled against the policy. On April 30, 2023, Lena Wilson, Deputy Commissioner for Food and Nutrition, issued a warning to her employees. “Remember, political discussions should take place outside of the office,” she wrote. “I cannot stress enough how important it is for you to raise your concerns with your management chain or HR.

About two weeks later, an employee whose name was redacted wrote: The 4/30/2023 email made me question how to express my concern about the new dress code policy, because discussing political or sensitive topics seemed discouraged. The boldness and impact of this policy attracted national attention, damaging the reputation of the agency and our division, the employee continued. How can we, as a division, demand that participants in our programs comply with civil rights policy when our own leaders do not? »

Another employee whose name was redacted wrote: “Over the past six months, several trans, queer, and/or gender non-conforming employees have been hired by TDA. This timing could suggest that this policy is a direct consequence of trans visibility in the workplace. By implementing discriminatory policies, TDA forces us to engage in behaviors that contradict our identity or make the workplace uncomfortable enough that we are forced to leave.

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This month of May, the Observer spoke with a current employee of TDA's food and nutrition division, who confirmed that the dress code remains in place. “I was disgusted reading all the agency's operating procedures during my first days on the job,” said the employee, who is gay and requested anonymity to avoid retaliation from TDA.

Previously, the employee worked elsewhere in state government. “Even though I'm open about my homosexuality, I don't feel the same level of safety as I did in my previous jobs in the state.

Natalie Rougeux, an employment lawyer in New Braunfels who represents employers and has provided employment law training for TDA, told the Observer she strongly advises her clients against adopting policies similar to the TDA dress code. “Let's just say, hypothetically, that an employee is fired and they believe it was because of their transgender status. This policy could certainly be used as circumstantial evidence of animosity toward transgender people.

Rougeux emphasized that the Supreme Court, in its Boston decision on gender identity, did not rule on issues such as dress, which she deliberately left for future matters. “I don’t want one of my clients to be that future case.”

An email from Rougeux was included in the documents provided by American Oversight. In it, Rougeux was responding to an apparent complaint (not included in the records) from a TDA human resources employee regarding training provided by Rougeux. I have removed the issue of choice of restroom and attire from my training in light of the Texas and Tennessee cases and your commissioners' position on the issue, but I think that is deliberately dead name an individual could still be the victim of harassment. My apologies if I did something disturbing. However, I am maintaining my training, writes Rougeux in the message of June 12, 2023.

Deadnaming means calling a transgender person by an old or incorrect name. In the email, Rougeux referenced 2022 court rulings in Texas and Tennessee that overturned the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's guidelines on sexual orientation and gender identity. The EEOC has since issued revised guidelines, which Texas and other states are once again challenging. But ultimately, according to Rougeux, nothing stops “employees from filing a claim if they believe they have been mistreated in the workplace because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.”

Kaplan agreed with Rougeux. “If you give someone a deadly name, you are likely to harass them because of their sexual orientation.”

A transphobic meme suggesting that teachers, rather than children themselves, are responsible for young people who come out as trans or queer.
Sid Miller took to social media to share a transphobic meme last April. (Screenshot/Twitter)

The TDA dress code has drawn constant criticism from its defenders. Sarah Kate Ellis, president of the national pro-LGBTQ+ group GLAAD, condemned the policy in a written statement to Observer. “LGBTQ people farm, work and live in Texas,” she wrote. “Commissioner Miller works for them too. All Texans deserve a public official who serves everyone in public and who, at a minimum, does not waste time and money targeting people for who they are or how they dress.

Miller continued to publicly defend the dress code on social media as recently as April. In response to Observer Republishing his original story on TDA politics on X, Miller replied: “Men are men. Women are women and @TexasObserver is a clown show.

According to Chukwu, this type of public behavior as well as the emails themselves show that Miller's priorities don't align with his job.

“The commissioner, who was one of the architects of this policy, was more concerned with appeasing the anti-trans and anti-non-binary sentiments of some public servants than with creating a comfortable and inclusive work environment for all employees.




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